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.

choice

Aurora could get two new charter schools, both with a community focus

Two co-founders of Aurora Community School pose for a picture with supporters of the proposed school outside the board room. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Two new charter schools, both with a large focus on community involvement, could open in Aurora in 2019.

One, Aurora Community School, would serve K-8 students in northwest Aurora using the “community schools” model, in which the school is a hub for other community resources such as food assistance, a medical clinic, and adult classes.

The other, Empower Community High School, would be a high school in central Aurora. It was designed by a group of parents, students, and community members who want to use project-based learning, in which students learn through real-life scenarios and projects — but specifically catering the education to immigrant and refugee students.

Read the full charter school applications here:

“They are trying to do the best they can so that these people who look different can have somebody on their side,” said Kodjo Amouzou, one member of the design team who spoke to the Aurora school board Tuesday. “These people will not focus on what you cannot do, but instead what they are capable of.”

Aurora Public Schools has gradually reformed its position on charter schools. A series of changes in the last several years paved the way for new charter school options in the district, including last year’s approval of a school from the high-performing DSST network, which was invited to open in Aurora.

This year, district officials saw a spike in interest from applicants wanting to open their own charters in the district. Officials said they spoke with eight organizations who expressed interest earlier in the year. Later they received five letters of intent, and three submitted full applications. Two weeks ago, one of those applicants, a national organization of charter schools, withdrew their proposal.

District officials and committees evaluated the charter school applications this spring through a relatively new process that has continued to evolve. This year, for the first time, it included in-person interviews. The evaluation rubrics gave overall good scores to the two proposals, but district staff highlighted some areas where the applications weren’t as strong, including in their plans for educating students with special needs or who are learning English as a second language, in their budget projections, and in their facilities plans.

Finding a place to house a school is consistently one of the biggest challenges facing charter school operators in the state. In Aurora, one charter school, Vega Academy, is operating in a temporary location and struggling to find a building in the northwest area of the city that isn’t near a marijuana dispensary or liquor store.

Aurora Community School is planning to open in the same region of the district, but is considering operating in modular units set up on vacant land.

District officials had been concerned that Empower would not find a location to open in by 2019, but at Tuesday’s board meeting they said the school has now identified a location they are in the process of securing.

Board members seized on some of the concerns district officials had cited, specifically around the plan for educating students with special needs or who are those who are learning the English language.

Aurora’s board includes four members elected in November after highlighting their concerns with charter schools during their campaign. They said they worried about how the proposed charter schools might affect district-run schools. In northwest Aurora, where some charter schools already operate and where DSST is planning to open in 2019, enrollment numbers are dropping at a faster rate than other parts of the district.

Because schools are funded based on the number of students they enroll, some district-run schools in that part of town are struggling financially.

Other board members said the cost of creating a good option for students could be worth it.

“Having charters in our district affects our bottom line, but if a change to our bottom line raises the performance level of our students, I’m willing to mitigate that risk,” said board member Monica Colbert. “To say it affects our bottom line so we don’t look at choice, that’s bothersome to me.”

Board member Cathy Wildman pointed out that the area is gentrifying and questioned if the students the schools want to serve will still be there by the time the schools open.

Lamont Browne, the district’s director of autonomous schools, told the board the district is recommending the schools get approval to open. District officials are drafting proposed conditions that the schools would have to meet throughout the next year before they open.

The school board will vote on the district’s recommendations for the conditional approvals at a meeting June 19.

the new deal

Aurora teachers could get a pay bump in the fall, with a chance for more in January

A kindergarten teacher at Kenton Elementary in Aurora, Colorado helps a student practice saying and writing numbers on a Thursday afternoon in February 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Aurora teachers will get a slight pay increase at the start of the next school year, with a possibility for an additional 3 percent raise in January, according to an agreement reached by district and union officials.

Bruce Wilcox, the president of the teachers union, said officials have struggled in the past to ensure that raises can benefit new and veteran teachers alike, but the plan that officials reached this spring will do that.

The negotiated agreement gives all teachers a $1,600 annual salary bump for the 2018-19 school year and allows teachers to move up in the salary schedule, something that teachers have been prevented from doing in some years, even though they received some salary increases.

Aurora employs about 2,100 teachers. At the end of this school year, the pay for those teachers ranged from $39,757 for someone just starting out to $102,215 for one teacher with about four decades of experience. The average salary in Aurora is $54,742.

Aurora teachers joined others from across the state earlier this spring in marching to the state Capitol asking for more school funding and higher pay. Many school districts, including in Grand Junction, Boulder, and Jeffco, are using an increase in state funding to give teachers pay raises.

Teachers in Aurora have told the school board in the past that many teachers, especially younger ones, can’t afford the city’s increasing housing costs.

Aurora Public Schools is considering asking voters to approve a tax increase in November. The agreement states that if a tax measure is successful, the district will set aside $10 million from that request to give teachers an additional 3 percent raise starting in January. That money would also go into creating a new salary schedule for paying teachers.

Wilcox said the union’s goal in rewriting the pay scale would be to have a more consistent way for teachers to get raises based on their years of service and increased education. While that’s the system in place now, freezes in the past have left some teachers behind where they should be, even as some newer teachers gain ground.

District officials said the current salary schedule “does not currently reflect our commitment to our human capital strategy. Unpredictable changes in state funding over previous years have made implementation of the current salary schedule challenging.”

Of teachers who cast a vote on the agreement, 91 percent voted to approve the deal, Wilcox said.

Now the school board must give their blessing. A vote, likely to approve the deal, is set to take place later this month.

Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect that recent pay freezes have applied only to movement within the salary schedule. The district hasn’t had a complete pay freeze since 2011.