Seal of approval

After some doubt, teachers and staff at Aurora Central approve overhaul plan

PHOTO: Nic Garcia

Aurora Central High, one of the state’s most academically troubled schools, is one step closer to a dramatic overhaul after teachers there Wednesday approved a plan that calls for new teaching methods, annual contracts for teachers and longer school days.

Before any changes, the district’s school board and the State Board of Education must also give their blessings.

Those governing boards are expected to OK the plan, in part because of the overwhelming support by the school’s teachers. More than 80 percent approved the plan. The Aurora school board had warned they would reject any plan that did not have broad community buy-in. And the state board has yet to reject an innovation plan that reached them.

“I am excited about this opportunity that will allow the Aurora Central community to create unique and targeted responses to the various challenges and opportunities within the school and zone community,” wrote Gerardo De La Garza, the school’s interim principal, in an email to the school’s staff obtained by Chalkbeat.

The vote, a year in the making, is a watershed moment for Aurora Public Schools and Superintendent Rico Munn.

The redesign efforts at Aurora Central — where most students are poor, black and Latino — has been the foundation of Munn’s improvement efforts in the district.

Before Wednesday’s vote at Aurora Central, three other schools approved similar plans. Together, they’ll form an “innovation zone” and work outside of many of district and state policies in an effort to boost student learning.

Student achievement and graduation rates in Aurora, the state’s fifth largest school district, have lagged state averages for years.

Aurora is the largest school district in the state that faces sanctions for poor student achievement. Districts and schools that are deemed chronically failing for five years face a variety of penalties including losing their accreditation, shut down or turned over to charter schools. The work at Aurora Central and at other schools has been in part to keep the state at bay.

“We are excited about the opportunity for Aurora Central staff to pursue innovation status,” Munn said in a statement.

While each school will look slightly different, all four will operate on a similar extended schedule, run common teacher training and will approach teaching through a “global leadership” theme developed by the nonprofit Asia Society.

The vote at Aurora Central was closely watched by education reform advocates, the district’s teachers union and state officials. When the first draft of the plan was introduced, observers were skeptical it would either pass a teacher vote, which is required by law, or be a success.

At the State Board of Education meeting Wednesday, Education Commissioner Richard Crandall said he was “very impressed” by Aurora’s proactivity and called the district one of the most proactive of those on the accountability clock.

Peter Sherman, the state’s chief school improvement officer, and his staff provided feedback during the last month to the district as the plan was being revised. Upon learning of the successful vote, he applauded the school’s efforts and said he is excited to review the plan teachers approved.

But he added, “The reality is, Aurora Central is facing a really high bar for quality because the school is entering the fifth year of the accountability clock. Identifying a school leader is also critical for implementation.”

Van Schoales, CEO of the education reform advocacy organization A+ Colorado, said he believes the school’s plan improved during multiple revisions but questions remain about how changes will be put in place.

“Our concerns regarding the plan have mostly to do with what they’re asking teachers to do,” he said.

The biggest change at Aurora Central will be a shift toward competency-based learning, a teaching method that allows students to prove their understanding of concepts at their own pace.

“It’s just really hard to do,” Schoales said. “And it’s especially hard to do when students are already at low levels of achievement.”

As part of that model, teachers will lead whole class discussions, provide instruction to small groups based on targeted one-on-one tutoring.

In addition, teachers will also be asked to conduct regular home visits and lead an advisory period.

Officials have said changes at Aurora Central will not happen overnight and will be rolled out over three years.

one-time money

Aurora school district has more money than expected this year

Jordan Crosby and her students in her kindergarten class at Crawford Elementary on February 17, 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Brent Lewis/The Denver Post)

The Aurora school district will have a slight influx of one-time money to spend on teacher pay and curriculum upgrades after seeing higher than expected increases in property tax revenue and accurately forecasting a decline in student enrollment.

The district received almost $9 million more in revenue than the $341.4 that was budgeted, and started the year with almost $11 million more than expected left over from last year.

The school board for Aurora Public Schools gave the budget changes initial approval at a board meeting Tuesday night.

Last year, when Aurora was reassessing its budget in January, officials found that they had to make mid-year cuts. This year’s mid-year changes, however, were good news, officials said, as the district finds itself with more money than they planned to have.

“In large part it’s because we hit our projections about enrollment,” Brett Johnson, the district’s chief financial officer, told the school board. “Because we hit it right on the dot, a lot of what we are going to discuss is good news.”

Aurora schools recorded an official student count this fall of 40,920 preschoolers through 12th graders. That’s down from 41,797 students counted last year.

It’s a drop that district officials were expecting this time.

The district also brought in more property tax revenues than expected.

Johnson said district officials based their projections for the current school year’s budget on a property tax increase of about 9 percent. But revenues from property values actually increased by almost twice that amount. Typically when districts get more money from local property taxes, their share of state money goes down, making it a wash, but because Aurora has mill levy overrides, it can take advantage of some of the increase.

Robin Molliconi, the administrative division supervisor in the Arapahoe County Assessor’s Office, said that while there has been new construction and development within the school district’s boundaries, most of the increased revenue is a result of higher assessed values of existing properties.

As budget officials in the district closed out last school year’s budget, they also found that there was more money left over than they expected. Johnson said district leaders believe that may have been a result of district staff spending more cautiously at the end of last year when officials were expecting big budget cuts.

If the school board gives the budget amendments final approval at their next board meeting, the district will use $5 million of the unexpected dollars to upgrade curriculum, $3.1 million to give teachers a pay raise that the district had previously agreed to with the union, and $1.8 million to launch a pilot to try to better fill hard-to-staff positions.

Johnson said some of the money will also go to the district’s reserve account that had been spent down in previous years when enrollment had dropped much more than expected.

Clarification: More information was added to the story to explain that Aurora has mill levy overrides.

year in review

Aurora school district saw accountability, charter and budget changes in 2017

First graders eat their lunch at Laredo Elementary School in Aurora. (Photo by Seth McConnell/The Denver Post)

Reform work in Aurora schools was on the fast track in 2017.

In the spring, Aurora Public Schools officials defended their work to improve the district’s lowest performing school, Aurora Central High School, in front of the State Board of Education. The school, having had multiple years of low performance, was one of the first to face sanctions for poor performance. But after the district made their case, the state board approved a plan that allows the district to continue rolling out the school’s innovation plan with a deadline of demonstrating improvements within two years.

The district, meanwhile, received good news this year: that it was no longer at risk of facing state sanctions itself after a rise in state ratings.

More recently, the district began looking at the next school, Paris Elementary, that could face the same fate as the high school, and is considering changes to lift that school’s achievement before the state intervenes.

That school, like Aurora Central, is part of the district’s innovation zone — a group of schools with more flexibility than traditional district-run schools. The zone was introduced in Aurora in 2015, but officials are still fine-tuning the work at those schools, including on their goals and budgets.

The district as a whole made many changes to their budget and school funding process in 2017. After a better-than-predicted state budget that was finalized in the spring, district leaders didn’t have to make all the cuts they were considering.

But in the process of scrutinizing the budget to find where they could make cuts, district officials decided to cut funding to six schools that operated under special plans created with the district’s teachers union.

The district is still closely watching enrollment numbers that continue to drop. Besides the impact on the budget, the changing enrollment picture prompted the district to consider a different kind of long-term plan for its buildings and future priorities.

Both the district’s reforms and budget discussions were big issues in this fall’s school board election, which saw a union-backed slate win four seats on the seven-member board.

The other big issue in the election was around the district’s work with charter schools. This summer, the Aurora school board approved the contracts for a new DSST charter school. The district is also considering consequences for charter schools that are low performing, and working with one charter to see if it can operate a center-based program for students with special needs.

Another effort that attracted attention this year was the district’s work to diversify its workforce, specifically principals.

Expect many more changes next year.