tick tock

Aurora chief will propose changes for struggling Central high school

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Aurora Public Schools board members Mary Lewis, left, Cathy Wildman, and JulieMarie Sheperd.

AURORA — Superintendent Rico Munn told the city’s school board Tuesday night that his leadership team will develop a plan this spring for a chronically low performing high school that is quickly approaching the end of the state’s accountability timeline.

Munn’s announcement came after the school board heard from officials at the Colorado Department of Education about sanctions the state may impose on the district if it fails to improve academic performance at Aurora Central High School.

The district’s goal: come up with a local solution that will improve student outcomes before a possible state intervention in 2016.

Aurora Central has been considered a low-performing school by the state for five years. If the school, which has made some slight improvements, doesn’t dramatically boost student tests scores and its graduation rate this year, the State Board of Education will likely ask the Aurora Public Schools Board of Education to take “dramatic and disruptive” action, the state officials said.

Among the possible actions: turn over the school to a charter operator; apply for innovation status that would give the school more autonomy from district policies and state law; or close it.

“As much as there are challenges, there are opportunities,” said Peter Sherman, executive director of the state’s school improvement office.

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State officials urged the school district and its board to take the long view. Nearly a third of Aurora’s 60 schools are considered low-performing. And the district itself is also at risk of losing its accreditation if it doesn’t improve as a whole within two years. That means the district, which is sits on Denver’s eastern border, could lose out on some federal funds, and students’ diplomas would be put in jeopardy.

Aurora is the largest school district on the state’s accountability watch list for chronically poor student achievement. Created in 2009, the state’s accountability system ranks schools and districts based mostly on student test scores and graduation rates. Schools and districts that fall in the bottom two categories of the state’s rankings are given five years to improve or face state penalty.

Aurora Central is one of 30 schools that is nearing the state’s deadline. The only other high school on that list is Adams City High School run by the Adams 14 school district.

“I think this is a lot to take in,” said board president JulieMarie Shepherd.

While the school board has had ongoing conversations with its struggling schools, the discussion Tuesday night between the board, state officials, and the district’s leadership seemed more frank given that the deadline for Aurora Central is drawing near.

Board members questioned the state’s motives and practices, how the district leadership team will engage teachers and parents in developing a plan for the high school, and wondered if the district shouldn’t take multiple actions simultaneously.

“It’s — scary isn’t the right word — I’m still looking for the partnership piece,” said board member Mary Lewis said, eyeing the state officials. “I’m looking for [you to say] we’re here to help.”

Aurora Central has about 2,100 students, most of whom are poor and black or Hispanic. It won a three-year, $2.3 million school improvement grant from the state and federal government in 2013. And state officials have been working directly in Aurora Central and with APS officials.

Lewis was also concerned that the district’s leadership team might act unilaterally without listening to the ideas of teachers.

“Teachers, all the staff, need to be included,” Lewis said.

Board member Amber Drevon said parents also needed to be consulted.

District officials said they are engaging with all community members. A survey was already sent to Aurora Central teachers. And the district will host community meetings in the near future.

Board member Dan Jorgensen urged the district to bring well-researched solutions to the table for teachers and parents to discuss. That would make for a better community engagement process, he said.

And while some board members were pointed about making sure adults outside of the district’s headquarters were listened to, Jorgensen refocused the conversation on students.

“Our decision shouldn’t be based on the clock, but on what’s best for kids,” Jorgensen said. “The rest is just gibberish. …  It’s about kids.”

Some audience members whispered “yes,” and “about time,” after Jorgensen’s comments.

Jorgensen also suggested the district seek bids for high-quality charter schools while it comes up with its own plan for the school.

About 30 members of the Aurora Central staff attended Tuesday’s meeting.

“We’re invested and truly care about the future custody of the school,” said Corey Price, a social studies and psychology teacher. “Our plea is that we’re part of the process is determining the future of Aurora Central High.”

In an interview after the board meeting, Price said he believes high teacher and leadership turnover coupled with multiple initiatives from various levels of district bureaucracy have prevented Aurora Central from propelling student achievement forward.  He said he hopes the school board gives the high school more autonomy and supports the building’s principal, Mark Roberts.

Munn told the board it can expect a proposal by the end of the school year.

“Whatever the option is — we need to start now,” he said.

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.