oversight

Aurora school board to consider one-year charter contract for school with conflict of interest

PHOTO: Andrea Chu/Getty Images

Aurora’s school board is set to decide Tuesday whether to renew the charter of a well-rated school that long has served children with special needs — but that also has become caught up in questions over conflicts of interest and opaque finances.

Aurora district administrators, concerned about operations of Vanguard Classical School, are recommending just a one-year charter extension rather than the usual five-year contract.

District staff members told the school board earlier this year that they were unsure about the school’s relationship with Ability Connection Colorado, the nonprofit that started the school and provides services through a $350,000 agreement. Not only does that contract lack specifics, but also the nonprofit’s CEO, Judy Ham, serves as the president of the charter school’s board and has signed agreements between the two organizations on behalf of Vanguard.

“You can see the clear conflict of interest concern that arose for us,” Lamont Browne, the district’s director of autonomous schools, told the school board in February.

The charter school board president disputes the findings of the conflicts of interest, but said the school is going to comply with all of the contract’s conditions anyway.

Vanguard, which first opened in 2007, was created to serve students with special needs in an inclusive model, meaning, as much as possible those students are blended into regular classrooms. Currently, the charter operates two campuses. One, near Lowry, enrolls about 500 K-8 students, and the second, a K-12 campus on the east side of the city, enrolls about 745 students. More than half of the students at each campus qualify for free or reduced price lunches, a measure of poverty.

In reviewing Vanguard, the district found it has a higher percentage of students who perform well on some state tests than the district does. The school also has a good rating from annual state reviews.

But the unclear relationship between the school and its founding nonprofit have raised doubts.

Although the relationship and service agreements the school has with the nonprofit aren’t new, Aurora’s concerns came up during an interview step that was added to the charter renewal process this year. Last time Vanguard went through a review from the district, five years ago, the district’s office of autonomous schools that now oversees charter schools did not exist. Staff describe previous reviews as compliance checklists.

Ham told district reviewers in that new step during the review process, that she never recused herself from board votes involving her employer.

But Ham now says that she misspoke, and meant that she has never recused herself officially because she just doesn’t vote on matters involving Ability Connection Colorado.

“It felt like (it was) a loaded question” Ham said. “But I don’t recuse myself because I don’t ever vote. It’s almost like a foregone conclusion.”

Browne also told the board he was concerned with the lack of detail about the $350,000 service agreement.

“Considering the amount that that contract was for, we were very concerned about the lack of detail regarding those services,” Browne said. He also pointed to school staff’s “lack of clarity with regard to what they were paying for and what they were receiving.”

Ham said the charter school has rewritten and added more detail to the agreements about what Ability Connection Colorado does for the school, which she said includes payroll services, human resources, building management, and risk assessments for students. The school’s west campus also shares a building with the nonprofit.

“We are on-call 24-7,” Ham said. “We wanted to provide everything so that the school could focus on being able to do the most important thing which is educating the children, knowing that inclusive education is hard to do.”

But what the functions of the nonprofit are aren’t clear, according to Aurora administrators.

“The school should not be wondering what services they are or are not receiving from the company,” said Mackenzie Stauffer, Aurora’s charter school coordinator.

Administrators recommend a renewed contract include stipulations such as governance training for the school’s board, meant to address conflicts of interest.

Ben Lindquist, president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, said that there are laws that could apply to give charter school authorizers like Aurora authority over conflict-of-interest issues.

“It should be within the purview of an authorizer to inquire into conflicts of interest if it perceives they are there,” Lindquist said. “But there’s not just one way to remedy that.”

Among the contract’s conditions, the district will also ask that Vanguard’s board be more transparent about recording board votes on significant decisions. Initially, district staff also said they considered asking Vanguard to remove the current board and replace all members, but officials said they ran into some problems with what they were allowed to ask the school to do.

“There’s a very interesting place we are in where we are the authorizer — we don’t run the school and we want to maintain that delineation,” Browne said. “However if we feel like there is something that could be a potential challenge for the school, we feel like it’s our duty to do what we can to suggest or recommend those changes.”

take note

Aurora is rolling out new curriculum to catch up with how teachers teach writing

A fourth grader in Aurora's Peoria Elementary takes notes while reading. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

After fourth-graders at Aurora’s Peoria Elementary read “Tiger Rising” as a group last week, several excitedly shot up their hands to explain the connections they had made.

“It’s not just a wood carving, it represents their relationship,” one student said about an object in the book. Others talked about another symbol, the lead character’s suitcase, while one student wondered about the meaning of the story’s title.

Nick Larson’s class rushed back to their desks, excited about what they had learned and ready to look for symbols in their own books during independent reading time. As they read, students filled their books, including the “Lost Treasure of the Emerald Eye,” “Because of Winn-Dixie” and “Super Sasquatch Showdown,” with sticky notes about what they were noticing in the text.

It’s one small way Aurora teachers are integrating writing and reading, a practice officials refer to as “balanced literacy.” It means reading about writing, and writing about reading. It’s not a new teaching practice, but the district has spent $4.7 million on new literacy curriculum from two different sources — schools get to pick one — to help teachers combine those lessons.

The materials replace curriculum adopted in 2000.

At Peoria, a school of about 429 students, of which approximately 90 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty, teachers were using some of the new curriculum last year. Larson, who also coaches other teachers half of the day, said he pushes students to think about what the author might have wanted them to feel. He asks students to write about the characters in the books they read, to better understand them.

“We’re trying to make connections throughout the day,” Larson said.

The previous literacy materials called for teaching reading and writing separately, and some didn’t include writing. They also no longer aligned with standards that the state changed in 2010.

An internal Aurora audit found different schools using a wide variety of resources as they supplemented the out-of-date curriculum.

And this fall, district staff found another reason why the new curriculum was necessary.

In dissecting state test results, Aurora discovered that about 40 percent of its third-through-eighth-graders earned zero points on certain writing sections of the test.

“We’ve got to address that,” said Andre Wright, Aurora’s chief academic officer. “You can’t leave that level of opportunity on the table. We just can’t do that.”

Starla Pearson, the district’s executive director of curriculum and instruction, explained that she expects to see changes soon.

“With the literacy curriculum that is in place right now, I have great confidence,” Pearson said. “We did not have something that specific, looking at writing instruction.” All of the curriculum now, she said, does include writing resources.

“This gives me such encouragement on the one hand because it’s a pretty simple fix … you’re seeing a real clear path to increasing points,” said Debbie Gerkin, an Aurora school board member. “The discouraging part is why wasn’t this happening?”

But about three-quarters of Aurora schools were already using the writing half of the curriculum before this year. Now all elementary and middle schools will use both the reading and writing parts of the district’s newly adopted curriculum. The district is now reviewing potential changes to high school curriculum.

District officials told the board that it’s possible the change in state tests in 2015 may have also contributed to the low scores. Previously, students took separate reading and writing tests and earned separate scores. The new state tests ask students to read a passage, and then respond to it in writing, combining the subjects.

Aurora officials said they didn’t have a way to compare the results they found with other districts. Colorado and most districts do not have comparable detailed results on segments of the state tests.

Wright said this information has prompted him to ask many questions internally. For starters, Aurora will focus training for teachers on combining reading and writing lessons. The district has spent $180,000 to provide teacher training on using the new resources.

But Bruce Wilcox, the president of the Aurora teachers union, said that teachers have been concerned about the limited time they had to learn and explore the new materials, which were only provided to them a few weeks before classes started.

Pearson said early anecdotal feedback has been positive.

“Teachers are saying, ‘thank you, we have a resource,’” she said.

Larson, who was one of 36 teachers from 10 schools who got to review and recommend which curriculum the district should adopt, said he likes several aspects of the materials.

“I feel like I’m being pushed as a teacher,” Larson said.

The district plans to survey teachers about the materials, and will look at internal test data throughout the year, as well as writing results next year to look for improvements.

“We will see a difference,” Pearson said.

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.