searching for leaders

How an Aurora high school in an “innovation zone” took a new approach to hiring a principal

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Lamont Browne listens to immigrant parents share their stories about Aurora Public Schools at a forum in June hosted by Rise Colorado.

When Aurora West College Preparatory Academy student Daniela Varela was helping vet principal candidates over the summer, she was impressed with how Taisiya “Taya” Tselolikhina emphasized the importance of building relationships with students.

On Tuesday, she saw that translate to action, as Tselolikhina introduced herself to students in the cafeteria or helped newcomers figure out their lockers and student ID numbers.

“It’s only the second day of school,” said Varela, a 16-year-old junior. “But she’s really getting involved with all the kids.”

Varela was more than an interested onlooker. She was part of a group of more than two-dozen people who helped pick Tselolikhina in a process made possible by new flexibility Aurora West and four other Aurora schools have as part of the district’s “innovation zone.” The status gives each school more autonomy from district rules and processes, including for hiring.

Although it’s common for students, parents and community members to play a role in selecting a school leader, the extent of this group’s involvement — outlining what candidates must do and questions they must answer during the process — is unusual.

By involving more people, Aurora school district officials hope to instill more confidence in the choice. It’s one way officials can use the flexibility that comes with innovation status to attempt to lift student achievement.

Aurora West, a sixth through 12th grade school with about 1,200 students, adopted a plan for school improvement under innovation status that included plans to change curriculum to better align the middle and high school, improve the development of English language learning, and plans to add social and emotional supports, among other changes.

Although the innovation zone started more than a year ago, a process for replacing a principal hadn’t been created until now, with the model developed for Aurora West.

It was on the last day of the 2016-17 school year that school staff learned they would need a new principal, with the departure of Brian Duwe.

Lamont Browne, the district’s director of autonomous schools, met with school staff and asked how they wanted to be involved, and what characteristics they wanted in a leader.

Feedback from staff and students was used to design questions and vet applications. School staff asked Browne’s office to review all applications and then introduce them to just a few good candidates to put through a series of interviews.

Then almost two dozen volunteers — including students, parents, teachers from each content and every grade level, staff and administrators — spent several hours over the summer working through the process and interviews.

“It was an honor to be included,” said Kandi Cantley, the school bookkeeper who said she had never been a part of a hiring process before. “I loved how the kids were involved, and their parents, and that it wasn’t just a sit-down interview. There were very different aspects to it.”

The process first included separate group interviews with students and parents, administrators, and with teachers. Candidates also had to lead a teacher training session and look at school data — about attendance, behavior or academics — and talk to a group of the committee about how the data should be analyzed and used to plan changes for the school.

But after observing candidates in those various roles, committee members met to talk and decided they wanted to know more. So they talked to district officials about adding another step.

“We met as a committee and we talked about what more information did we want to learn about the candidate that we were interested in,” said Jessica Rodriguez, an assistant principal who was part of the committee. “Together we typed up some questions as well as provided data that we wanted to hear her analyze and talk about.”

In the added step the committee designed, Tselolikhina had to do a mock session coaching a teacher. Browne gave her feedback and the committee members watched how she used it to adjust her coaching. Browne said he always looks for leaders who can use feedback to improve, but was glad that the group developed this way of seeing it in action.

“That’s what I appreciated,” said Tushar Rae, dean of instruction. “You got to see a candidate in several different realms.”

In the end, the committee members didn’t hold a vote, but provided Browne feedback for each of the candidates.

“The beauty of the process is that there were different steps that different people got to see,” Browne said. “At the end of the day I got to hear all the perspectives and take all that into account. Certainly I had a perspective of my own. Fortunately it matched what everyone else suggested.”

Tselolikhina, who had never been a principal before, said she applied for the job to be closer to where policy changes are applied. She previously was the manager of the professional learning center for Denver Public Schools, which plans teacher and staff training.

“The chance to have direct influence over students who deserve better access to equity is such an opportunity,” Tselolikhina said. “Here our actions and the dedication that this team puts in directly influences the lives of students every day.”

Tselolikhina said she used to live in the neighborhood, just eight minutes away from the school. She has goals of improving teacher instruction through data and through better planning, and decreasing student suspensions and expulsions by improving student relationships.

“I believe in her,” said Rodriguez, the assistant principal on the committee.

performance based

Aurora superintendent is getting a bonus following the district’s improved state ratings

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

Aurora’s school superintendent will receive a 5 percent bonus amounting to $11,820, in a move the board did not announce.

Instead, the one-time bonus was slipped into a routine document on staff transitions.

Tuesday, the school board voted on the routine document approving all the staff changes, and the superintendent bonus, without discussion.

The document, which usually lists staff transfers, resignations, and new hires, included a brief note at the end that explained the additional compensation by stating it was being provided because of the district’s rise in state ratings.

“Pursuant to the superintendent’s contract, the superintendent is entitled to a one-time bonus equal to 5 percent of his base salary as the result of the Colorado Department of Education raising APS’ district performance framework rating,” the note states.

The superintendent’s contract, which was renewed earlier this year, states the superintendent can receive up to a 10 percent bonus per year for improvements in state ratings. The same bonus offer was in Munn’s previous contract with the district.

The most recent state ratings, which were released in the fall, showed the state had noted improvements in Aurora Public Schools — enough for the district to be off the state’s watchlist for low performance. Aurora would have been close to the five years of low-performance ratings that would have triggered possible state action.

“I am appreciative of the Board’s recognition of APS’ overall improvement,” Superintendent Munn said in a statement Wednesday. “It is important to recognize that this improvement has been thanks to a team effort and as such I am donating the bonus to the APS Foundation and to support various classroom projects throughout APS.”

This is the only bonus that Munn has received in Aurora, according to a district spokesman.

In addition to the bonus, and consistent with his contract and the raises other district employees will receive, Munn will also get a 2.93 percent salary increase on July 1. This will bring his annual salary to $243,317.25.

At the end of the board meeting, Bruce Wilcox, president of the teachers union questioned the way the vote was handled, asking why the compensation changes for teachers and compensation changes for other staff were placed as separate items on the meeting’s agenda, but the bonus was simply included at the bottom of a routine report, without its own notice.

“It is clear that the association will unfortunately have to become a greater, louder voice,” Wilcox said. “It is not where we want to be.”

budget book

Aurora school board approves the budget, but will continue transparency discussions to change the level of detail available

A student works at Tollgate Elementary School in Aurora. (Photo by Nic Garcia, Chalkbeat)

Aurora school board members on Tuesday unanimously approved next school year’s $746.8 million budget after months of heated discussions over whether the district had provided the public enough detail about it.

The budget represents a 4.7 percent drop from the current year, because of declines in enrollment and thus state dollars. It does include money for salary increases, but it was Aurora’s transparency, or lack of it, that has generated the most controversy.

But just because the budget was approved doesn’t mean the transparency discussion has ended.

New board member Kyla Armstrong-Romero — the first to press for more information after district officials said they planned on raising student athletic fees — said Tuesday she will keep asking the district for more detailed budget documents.

“I understand the necessity to approve the budget on time,” Armstrong-Romero said. But, she said, she’s back to the drawing board to see how to go about making more requests.

Brett Johnson, Aurora’s chief financial officer, said releasing more detail would be better, but said his department didn’t have the capacity to change what it provides quickly.

“We want to make a budget book that is more user friendly,” Johnson told the board. But he added, “there would be a lot of upfront costs associated with rebuilding and rethinking the style of this budget.”

As an example, he said, the Cherry Creek district has double the budget staff that Aurora does, including one full-time employee that collects numbers from schools.

After November’s election, Aurora’s new board majority began to insist on more budget detail – in contrast with the previous board, which sought budget overviews.

Aurora Public Schools has had four budget directors in four years, including Johnson who started 15 months ago. The finance department has struggled to maintain consistency.

In recent years, board members had prioritized accesible information that could easily make sense to anyone. Officials pointed to the creation of a two-page budget summary for the first time last year, and the launch last summer of an interactive website that breaks down budget allocations.

Armstrong-Romero said she wanted more detail to understand where next year’s budget was different from the current year’s budget or previous years’ budgets. She asked for comparable line-item documents, and explanations of what made up big buckets of spending.

Specifically, she asked for numbers to understand the tradeoffs of not making certain budget cuts.

Superintendent Rico Munn told the board that he could not ask staff to create multiple proposed budgets just to detail all the various scenarios.

Board members talked about other district’s budgets. Denver Public Schools, for example, launched a new budget book earlier this year that includes a breakdown of where every dollar allocated per student gets spent.

“For me, it’s inconceivable that our community does not merit the same level of transparency,” Armstrong-Romero said.

Munn said that there are differences in communities, but disputed the thought that different information meant less transparency.

“Our community certainly deserves transparency, but that looks different ways in different communities,” Munn said. “It may be fair to say we haven’t struck the right tone or that there’s room to improve, which we’ve already indicated, but clearly we are not trying to hide anything.”

Some board members said that they didn’t need details down to how much was spent on each pencil at each school, but board member Kevin Cox said the conversation doesn’t have to be about one or the other, and suggested both a detailed book, and overview summaries should be available for the public.

Aurora is already searching for software to automate its budget and to skip manual data entry.

Johnson said that currently three people enter 30,000 pieces of data. “We are hoping to automate that with a better system,” he said.

Jonathan Travers, a partner at the Massachusetts-based nonprofit Education Resource Strategies, suggested districts can provide budget detail in many ways. One way is to focus on the strategy behind financial decisions.

He said “hundreds of pages of detail on accounting… is far less helpful than a few pages” on the ways in which the district allocates resources.

Board members also talked earlier this month about doing an audit, or hiring a consultant to help rethink the budget.

Colorado already requires outside audits of school district spending. Those audit reports look at many aspects of finance procedures, and are made public, but they lag because they focus on the actual dollar amounts after they’ve been spent.

Budgets, however, aren’t required to be audited because they are only proposed plan for where to allocate money.

At a budget hearing, one teacher said he supported Armstrong-Romero’s request for more budget information to help the board make decisions, and reminded the four new board members that they ran on a platform of transparency.