Q & A

Meet Aurora’s new chief academic officer, whose plans include more training for principals

PHOTO: Photo by Joe Amon/The Denver Post

Andre Wright has a sizeable task ahead: Help all of Aurora’s schools improve their academics.

The district’s new chief academic officer, Wright was appointed this month by superintendent Rico Munn. He’s not brand-new to the job, having served in in interim basis since September. And he’s familiar with the community, too, having previously overseen several schools, including Hinkley High School and East Middle School, as one of the district’s learning directors.

But it’s still a time of uncertainty for Aurora, where school officials are trying to increase the district’s academic momentum.

A few schools may face state intervention soon without faster improvements. The school board also got four new members last November.

Andre Wright. (Courtesy of Aurora Public Schools).

Chalkbeat talked to Wright about his plans for his new role and why he’s already revamped one key process. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Chalkbeat: Tell me a little about yourself.
Wright: I’m originally from Atlanta, Georgia. I am the product of two educators. My father was an educator, my mother retired as an educator. She was in every building that I was in, so I never got a chance to get away from mom.

I understood early on the value of education. Statistically, there were opportunities for me to have made different choices. But I can attribute a lot of the positive choices that I made because of my educational experience.

My job is to make sure that we create conditions and systems that allow every single student to obtain benefit from their educational experience. That’s what is most important for me.

What attracted you to the position of chief academic officer?
One of the things that happened is that I served as the interim and also continued serving as learning community director. Being in the role gave me a vantage point that I didn’t have previously.

We’ve done some pretty good things here. We have some momentum, but being able to see it from both sides of the house — I felt like this would be a great opportunity to really do what we say, and that is accelerate the learning of every APS student every day.

How do you see your past role influencing how in your new position you help the district work with schools?
As a learning community director, my responsibility was for the 10 schools that I supported and the support team. In this position now, it’s all of them.

How do I capture all of the positives from each one of the different structures that we had in place previously, along with the work that I did while serving community P, (the group of schools that he was assigned to as learning director) and then bring that up to scale? I think that’s my most important task.

And the last thing is just getting resources closest to our schools so they can do the work.

As you take over this role for Aurora schools, should school educators expect changes to how the district interacts with them?
I think we just have to be more responsive to the needs of our schools. You learn from all the things that you’ve done over the years, and then you say, where are the gaps, where are the parts that we may have missed, and then how do you fill that gap? And respond accordingly.

Are there gaps you already identified that you want to fill?
There’s always room for improvement. We have been fortunate to have a partnership with the University of Virginia Partnership for Leaders program, and there are some key learnings that some principals got. When they bring it back, they share that learning with other principals. I think maybe there’s an opportunity for us to expand that learning, to make sure all of our principals are getting that type of experience from a leadership development perspective, so there’s not one side of the district learning something that other leaders aren’t.

Aurora Public Schools is in a position where several schools must show improvement or face possible state action. When it comes to the district’s turnaround efforts, what things are working or what needs to change?
I’ll be the first to say there isn’t a silver bullet out there. If that was the case everybody would have it by now. This is not an issue that’s isolated to Aurora Public Schools. This is a national issue, how to make sure all of the students we serve are being successful.

The bottom line is that we have to be able to meet the needs of all of our kids where they are and establish what the next steps for them have to be. Because, in my mind, being a “performance school” does not mean you have met every child where they need to be met. There’s still work to be done. You don’t stop at that point because your color changes.

I don’t speak specifically to this program or that program. It’s, how are you moving every student in your building to make sure at a minimum they are at grade level and then can accelerate and move forward.

One of the long-term challenges the district has faced is in helping students who are English learners, in particular because the language diversity in Aurora is vast. Are there different supports you think the district needs to provide?
I think it’s how do we consistently improve the professional development opportunities that we give to teachers so it’s not a one-time exposure to language development. It can’t be.

Families come in to Aurora. Families move within Aurora. They go from one building to the next sometimes. And so how well are we prepared to respond to that? We have to develop a system to help teachers.

How often are you in the schools and when you are, what are you looking for as you walk the halls?
It’s not just what you see in the building, it’s what you see in the classrooms. It’s not just what happens in the hallways.

How are we engaging students at a level that we know students are able to master the standards? How are teachers engaging our students so that there’s this open dialogue between teachers and students and the kids are engaged at the level that the standard is asking? How are district supports embedded into what’s happening in a classroom? I take all that into consideration.

You recently talked to the school board about changes to how you create the required improvement plans for schools. Can you talk about that work?
The district had a process for identifying the priority challenges for the district and what the major improvement strategies were. When I became interim, I decided I wanted more stakeholders involved in the conversation.

So if I said one of our challenges was students on IEPs being able to access at a high level, then I need the director of ESS [Exceptional Student Services] to be part of the conversation. So if we identify that on-time graduation rate is a priority challenge for us, then we want to make sure our learning community directors, as well as our college and career director, are a part of the conversation so were not handing them a plan that they are not appraised of. You got accountability and research teams that say from a numbers perspective, here’s what we see. Then you got folks on the ground saying here’s what we see. Everybody had a say so.

I can’t ignore the schools that are doing better than other schools. We have to have their voice in it as well, because we all have to improve. The district is no more than the sum total of the performances of every school. We represent the totality of all of our achievement.

That’s the difference in what I’ve done since I’ve been here.

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.