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.

blueprint

Shrinking here, expanding there, Aurora district wants to hear your thoughts on how to handle growing pains

A student at Vista Peak in Aurora works on an assignment. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

The Aurora school district faces sharply dropping enrollment in its northwest corner, but anticipates tracts of new homes filled with students to the east in coming years. To help figure out how it should manage its campuses, the district is turning to the public.

The district held its first of four public meetings Wednesday, and has launched an online survey to gather more input. About 20 attendees Wednesday afternoon answered questions about their thoughts on Aurora — an overwhelming majority said it’s diversity that makes the district unique — on the most important thing schools should have — most said good academic programs — and expressed a desire for more science-technology-engineering-and-math programs, as well as dual-language programs.

Then participants talked with moderators from an outside consultant group hired by the district, while district staff and board members floated around listening to conversations.

The district seeks to address challenges explained to the school board last year, posed by declining, and uneven, enrollment.

In the east of the district, development is planned on empty land near E-470 and out to Bennett, and schools may be needed.

In historic, central Aurora, bordering Denver, gentrification is causing one of the district’s fastest drops in enrollment. But because many of those schools were so crowded, and are typically older buildings, the schools may still need building renovations, which would require an investment.

Aurora district officials told the school board they needed a long-term plan that can support the vision of the district when making facilities decisions.

The decisions may also affect how the district works with charter schools. Enrollment numbers show more families are sending their children to charter schools, and the district is asking questions to find out why.

The online survey, translated into the district’s most common 10 languages other than English, includes questions about why parents choose Aurora schools, what kinds of programs the district should expand, and about whether school size should be small or large.

The survey will be online until Sept. 24.

In the next phase of planning, a task force will draw from community input to draft possible “scenarios.” That task force includes one teacher and several officials from the district and other organizations such as the Aurora Chamber of Commerce, the Aurora branch of the NAACP and the Rotary Club of Aurora. The members include high-profile names such as Skip Noe, the former Aurora city manager who is now chief financial officer of Community College of Aurora, and William Stuart, one of the district’s former deputy superintendents.

A second task force of Aurora district officials will create action plans for the different scenarios.

Both groups will meet through December.

The next public meetings where you can provide your input are:

  • Thursday, Sept. 6, 6 p.m.
    Vista PEAK Preparatory, 24500 E. 6th Ave.
  • Saturday, Sept. 15, 10 a.m.
    Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, 10100 E. 13th Ave.
  • Monday, Sept. 17, 6 p.m.
    Mrachek Middle School, 1955 S. Telluride St.

Plus

Aurora school introduces out-of-the-box redesign with more electives, more teacher collaboration

Students at Aurora Hills Middle School work on creating huts in their STEM class. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

With new offerings of elective classes, a full day every week for teachers to train and plan together, and lots of positive feedback already, school leaders at Aurora Hills Middle School are optimistic about their school redesign.

Officials want it to be a win-win-win solution for the struggling school.

When the principal at Aurora Hills Middle School reviewed teacher surveys in the past, one thing stood out: Teachers were unhappy about their schedule.

Although it’s not uncommon for teachers to lament a lack of time for planning or teaching, an audit of Aurora Hills last year showed its teachers had a higher course load than in other district schools, higher-than-average class sizes, and less instructional time.

So, Principal Marcella Garcia jumped at the idea of working with consultant School by Design to redesign her school’s schedule. School by Design’s focus is on providing data about how schools use their time and helping schools find better ways to do things without requiring more staff or money.

“They really did help me to think differently,” Garcia said. “And the effect we can have is huge. We could have continued on, but I don’t know if I would have thought so outside of the box.”

The consultant has been working with all middle schools in the district as well as some high schools, but each school leader can choose what changes to make, and Aurora Hills took an early initiative to make changes.

Under the changes this year, the approximately 850 students at Aurora Hills have a full day every week for special courses like music, health, technology, or STEM.

Students and educators refer to that as their Plus day, and students say it’s the fun part of their week. Some students, like those requiring special education and English language learner services, have access that they wouldn’t have had in the past to take such classes.

While students in one grade level have their Plus day, their teachers spend the full day in training, led by teacher leaders, and in joint planning time.

So far, they’ve been using the time to look at how they grade and to share ideas about teaching. They’ve also said they want to spend time looking at attendance and behavior data, and learning how to teach social and emotional skills throughout the day.

Teachers have mostly responded positively, Assistant Principal John Buch said.

“One teacher shared, during their reflections, that in her years of teaching, she had not had an opportunity before to collaborate with a teammate and go in depth in planning like they did last week,” Buch said. “We also heard, I would say several comments, about the freedom they felt when planning isn’t cut off by a bell.”

Teacher Cynthia Krull signed up last year to help design the teachers’ new time.

“I really truly fell in love with the idea,” Krull said.

This year, she is a Plus teacher planning hands-on projects for students who take her STEM class once a week. Last week seventh-graders were designing a hut that would help them survive a set of given conditions while stranded on an island. As they worked in pairs to mesh their ideas of what a hut should do or what it might look like, while rushing to meet a deadline, the students clearly were relishing the challenge.

“They look forward to coming to that class,” Krull said.

Aurora Public Schools has been working with School by Design since 2017 to find ways to improve middle-school achievement without increasing spending. The consultant team is still working with a number of other Aurora schools this year, but officials said they expect Aurora Hills’ leaders can become in-house experts within the district, phasing out the need for the consultant, and helping other schools who want to keep thinking differently about their use of staff or time.

So far, the district has spent more than $146,000 on the consultant. District officials say the savings outweigh the cost.

At Aurora Hills, for instance, if teachers are able to have their professional development during the regular school day, the school can save on paying teachers for extra time on the clock or paying for substitutes to cover classes.

But there are also benefits that aren’t easy to quantify, such as giving teachers more time to work together. Or giving students more class offerings and more time to learn.

As part of the schedule, teacher teams also get a block period where students are in “flex time” which means two class teachers combine and split their students into groups and together provide extra help for those who might be falling behind, or give students a chance to delve deeper into a topic.

“Time is the most precious resource,” said Jack Shaw, the executive vice president of Schools by Design. “The win in schools is I’m able to get a bundle of benefit without any additional costs.”

This year, the consultant team will provide updated audit information, so that schools can track the impact of any changes they’ve made.

At Aurora Hills, Principal Garcia said she’s giving staff regular surveys to see how the changes are working. She’ll also be tracking staff turnover rates, and student achievement.

The school has received two consecutive years of low ratings from the state. Based on preliminary ratings released this week, Aurora Hills is in its third year of low performance. The school must improve before reaching five years of low state ratings, or risk state sanctions.

The Aurora district’s own plan for dealing with low-rated schools calls for the district to increasingly intervene in schools if ratings lag. District officials would have likely directed changes this year if Aurora Hills hadn’t created a redesign of its own.

School leaders said they are hopeful that the changes they’re rolling out will make a difference.

“We are encouraged,” said Buch. “We are early in the process, but we have a group of teachers and staff and students working pretty relentlessly to change outcomes. We believe that’s the right work.”