‘Clear Expectations’

Aurora district considering consequences for low-performing charter schools

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at the AXL Academy charter school in Aurora work on math problems in 2015.

In Aurora Public Schools, district-run schools must perform well enough academically or face repercussions, including possible closure, if they don’t shape up fast enough.

The same cannot be said for the district’s charter schools. Charter school contracts don’t have standard language spelling out performance standards, and the school district doesn’t have a policy for dealing with academically struggling charter schools.

All that could change soon. District officials are in the early stages of drafting a new policy that would set clear expectations and consequences for its charter schools.

The district is acting now because one Aurora charter, AXL Academy, earned a priority improvement rating from the state this year, the second lowest rating on the state’s system.

District officials are calling for a thorough review of AXL Academy and will be asking school leaders to create an improvement plan within 30 days. Having a new policy applying to all charter schools could set clear expectations and outline a process to close charters that fail to meet those expectations.

“The purpose is so we have a consistent way of holding schools accountable — a consistent and transparent process,” said Lamont Browne, the district’s executive director of autonomous schools.

Under what the district calls the CORE Framework, officials identify struggling schools using the state’s quality ratings. Schools earning the lowest two ratings get on the district’s radar. The framework outlines a timeline that requires an improvement plan and directs additional help for the school the first time it earns a low rating.

By the third year that a school is still earning low ratings, the district must recommend turnaround or a school improvement strategy.

The school then has one to two years to show improvement. The district used this framework to recommend a charter school take-over for one school last year.

So far, only district-run schools have faced consequences under the framework because a charter school hasn’t fit the definition for low-performing. Now that it’s happened, the district is trying to figure out what pieces can apply to charter schools, or whether other steps might be needed.

For charter schools, Browne says it’s too early to know exactly what a new policy might say. Officials are starting by researching best practices across the country, he said.

For now, the more thorough review that will be required for AXL Academy won’t necessarily lead to any consequences.

Browne told the school board in an update Tuesday night that in the future, if reviews show a concerning trend, officials could make a case for a charter school revocation or nonrenewal.

With AXL Academy, the Aurora district already has some flexibility to connect school performance to consequences. Because the school experienced financial problems in 2014, and the district gave the charter school a loan, language was added to that charter contract stating the school has to “maintain a school performance rating of ‘Performance’ as measured by state and school assessments,” and that failure to do so could be considered a breach of contract.

If the school board found a breach of contract, the district could shut down the school.

Similar contract language could be required in all future charter school contracts.

Dan Cohen, executive director for AXL Academy, said that he is confident the charter school will show improvement soon, but that he is worried the district is mounting evidence to recommend closure.

“I have no qualms that we will pull out of priority improvement,” Cohen said “We feel quite good about what we’ve been doing, but I don’t know what that will mean to the district.”

Cohen said that he is unsure why the district needs a separate assessment and timeline process for charter schools, and that it might make sense for the timeline and process to be similar to traditional district-run schools.

As far as the improvement process that Browne told the board Tuesday that AXL Academy will be required to submit, Cohen said it’s news to him. He said school leaders are already scrambling with a 10-day deadline to edit the school’s state improvement plan.

“Their behavior right now looks aggressive,” Cohen said of the school district.

District leaders expect to present a proposed policy to the board by June.


Aurora’s superintendent will get a contract extension

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

The Aurora school board is offering superintendent Rico Munn a contract extension.

Marques Ivey, the school board president, made the announcement during Tuesday’s regular board meeting.

“The board of education believes we are headed in the right direction,” Ivey said. Munn can keep the district going in the right direction, he added.

The contract extension has not been approved yet. Munn said Tuesday night that it had been sent to his lawyer, but he had not had time to review it.

Munn took the leadership position in Aurora Public Schools in 2013. His current contract is set to expire at the end of June.

Munn indicated he intends to sign the new contract after he has time to review it. If he does so, district leaders expect the contract to be on the agenda of the board’s next meeting, April 3, for a first review, and then for a vote at the following meeting.

Details about the new offer, including the length of the extension or any salary increases, have not been made public.

Four of the seven members currently on the board were elected in November as part of a union-supported slate. Many voiced disapproval of some of the superintendent’s reform strategies such as his invitation to charter school network DSST to open in Aurora.

In their first major vote as a new board, the board also voted against the superintendent’s recommendation for the turnaround of an elementary school, signaling a disagreement with the district’s turnaround strategies.

But while several Aurora schools remain low performing, last year the district earned a high enough rating from the state to avoid a path toward state action.


Struggling Aurora elementary must decide next steps on recommendations

Teachers at Lyn Knoll Elementary should get more than 20 minutes per day for planning, school officials should consider switching to a district-selected curriculum for literacy, and the school should find a way to survey neighborhood families who send their children to school elsewhere.

Those are some of the recommendations for improvement presented to Aurora’s school board this week by a committee overseeing the work at Lyn Knoll.

But because the school has a status that allows it more autonomy, those recommendations cannot be turned into mandates, committee members told the school board this week. Instead, school officials must now weigh these suggestions and decide which they might follow.

Bruce Wilcox, president of the Aurora teachers union and member of the joint steering committee, said he doesn’t expect every recommendation “to come to fruition,” but said whether or not each recommendation is followed is not what’s important.

“It really will come down to, is improvement made or not,” Wilcox said.

Rico Munn, the superintendent of Aurora Public Schools, had recommended Lyn Knoll for turnaround after the school fell to the state’s lowest quality rating last year. Enrollment at the school has also dropped. But the Aurora school board voted instead to wait another year to see if the school itself can make improvements.

Munn Thursday suggested that the board may still make part of that decision contingent on approval of the school’s action plan.

The union-led joint steering committee that wrote the recommendations offered to monitor and guide the school during the 2018-19 school year as it tries to improve, but it’s a role the group has never taken on before. Part of that role has already started with committee members visiting the school for observations.

“The purpose of the joint steering committee is to be a place the schools can go to and ask for guidance,” Wilcox said. “This is where it’s doing well.”

Lyn Knoll is one of three district-run schools in Aurora that have pilot status, which was created about 10 years ago when the district worked with its teachers union to create a path for schools to earn autonomy.

This was before Colorado passed the law that allows schools to seek innovation status, which is a state process that grants schools waivers from some state, district, and union rules as a way to try new ideas.

“At the time that pilot schools came in, our district was very lockstep,” Wilcox said. “What was done at one school was done at the other. That was the framework.”

Schools that wanted to try something different or unique could apply to the district for pilot status if they had a plan with school and community support. Each pilot school also had to create a school governing board that could include teachers and community members that would help the school make decisions.

At Lyn Knoll, one of the popular innovations involved letting students have physical education every day of the week, something not common in many schools.

Another of the district’s pilot schools, William Smith High School, uses its status to lead a school unlike any other in the district, with a project-based learning model where students learn standards from different subjects through real-life scenarios and projects.

The Aurora district, like many districts around the country, now has created more ways beyond pilot status for principals to make specific changes at their school.

In Aurora, Munn said the current structure of the district, which now has “learning communities,” is meant to be responsive to the differences between groups of schools.

“We’re really trying to strongly connect different parts of the district and be flexible and there are different ways of doing that,” Munn said.

Schools can come to the district and request permission to use a different curriculum, for instance, or to change their school calendar so students can be released early on certain days for teacher planning time. There’s also a district application process so that schools that need specific help or resources from the district can request them. And more recently, schools that want several, structured, waivers are more likely to apply for the state’s innovation status, which provides “a stronger framework,” Munn said.

The district said current pilot school principals could not speak about their school model for this story.

Lyn Knoll currently has no principal for next year. Officials at Thursday’s board meeting suggested waiting until a new principal is identified or hired so that person could work with the school’s governing board on a plan for change. It was unclear how soon that might happen, although finalists are being scheduled for interviews next week.

Clarification: The story has been updated to reflect that the need for a principal at Lyn Knoll is for next year.