The Aurora school board plans to pick a new superintendent early next week to replace outgoing district leader John Barry. The retired Air Force major general who took over Aurora Public Schools in 2006 will officially clear out of his office at the end of June.
The four finalists – two who are presently administrators down the road in Denver – talked to members of the media Friday and were slated for interviews with the school board over the weekend. Whoever is selected will start the job July 1.
Tracy Dorland is deputy chief academic officer for teaching and learning in Denver Public Schools, where she provides executive leadership for the district’s academic departments, district-wide strategy for transition to the Common Core State Standards and integration of the district’s educator effectiveness system, known as LEAP.
She is a former principal at Smedley Elementary and has worked as a literacy coach and classroom teacher.
Dorland described herself as a “values-driven leader.” She described those values as “equity, collaboration, integrity and joy.”
“I think we need joy in education,” she said. “I feel like a happy and joyful learning environment is incredibly important.”
Dorland said she applied for the position because she has the experience and passion to work with a diverse population of learners.
“I feel very strongly that Aurora’s strength is in its diversity,” Dorland said, noting that its student body represents 135 countries. “This is something I’ve sought my entire career.”
Dorland said with the Common Core Standards on the way, the focus needs to be “not only on how we’re teaching but what we’re teaching.”
Dorland was firm in her belief that teachers need to be at the table as plans take root in terms of evaluating teachers against academic goals outlined in the Common Core.
She said teachers remain the “biggest lever” in the classroom in terms of student learning. She described LEAP as a way to advance the profession of teaching.
Dorland also said it’s imperative to tap other community resources, such as AmeriCorps. She noted that when she was a school principal, AmeriCorps volunteers helped create after-school programs for kids based on what the kids said they wanted.
John Randal “Randy” Johnson
Randy Johnson, a native of New Mexico, has also held positions in education ranging from teacher to administrator in a large urban district. He currently serves as instructional superintendent at the secondary level in the Denver Public Schools. In the position, he supervises the district’s high school principals.
He also served as principal of Career Education Center – Middle College of Denver, a career and technical magnet high school, for one year.
As he introduced himself, Johnson talked broadly about the power of education.
“I understand the steps necessary for schools and districts to be effective,” he said. “You have to have a shared vision that everybody believes in and a plan to achieve that vision.”
He also said it’s key to “progress monitor the work you’re doing toward that vision.”
You need to “set targets and goals and hold each other accountable for getting there.”
Finally, you need effective leadership at the district and school level. At the end of the day, education is all about relationships, Johnson said.
“This is a people business. You can’t have plans without people. You always have to be intentional about how we connect with each other and speak to each other.”
He said much of the work he’s doing in Denver around teacher effectiveness and evaluation will translate into work in Aurora, since the demographics of the two districts are so similar. About 70 percent of both district’s students qualify for free and reduced price lunch, an indicator of poverty.
When asked about immediate challenges in Denver, Johnson said his main priority is working on schools rated red, which means accredited on probation, on the district’s School Performance Framework, especially the alternative schools serving at-risk students.
“We have to get right the work we do with kids who need alternatives…at what point did the child fail to pass through these gateways?”
Johnson said Denver is getting better at identifying kids earlier, but that more needs to be done.
As far as initiatives launched by Barry that Johnson would continue, he cited boosting IB and AP offerings.
“He has a great reputation for success,” Johnson said of Barry.
Asked about charter schools, Johnson said in Denver “we view charter schools as Denver Public Schools.”
“We have the same expectations of all of our schools,” Johnson said. “Ultimately it comes down to how (they are) actually guaranteeing that end result.”
As a supervisor of many innovation schools, schools that are freed from district regulations so they can try new things, in Denver, Johnson affirmed his belief that school systems “need to provide as many opportunities as they can” for students and families.
“One is not superior to the other,” he said of traditional vs. charter schools.
Rico Munn is a litigation partner at Baker and Hostetler and adjunct law professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.
He also serves on the Board of Governors overseeing the Colorado State University System and is the former director of the Department of Higher Education in Colorado and served on the state Board of Education.
Munn spent some time countering the characterization of his background for the post as “non-traditional.”
“I’ve been in and out of education for the past 20 years,” Munn said.
He said he has children enrolled in Aurora Public Schools and is excited about leading such a diverse school district and said the 40,000-student district is headed in the right direction.
Munn said his deep ties in education, business and law would serve the district well.
“Aurora schools are a very complex, half billion dollar entity,” Munn said. “This is a good background to bring to oversee and be chief administrator in the district.”
Munn said his main goal would be to “accelerate the pace of change” by delving more deeply into data to determine which approaches have the greatest impact on student achievement and engagement.
He also said his background would serve him well as he sought to build even more bridges with parents, along with community and business leaders.
Munn said it’s critical that Aurora continue its practice of giving students the opportunity to try various areas of emphases as it does now with its pathways program.
When asked if he believed there should be different types of diplomas for different types of students, he said he didn’t think that was a good idea.
“I don’t think we should start making decisions about a kid’s future when they’re 14,” Munn said. “To put kids on that definitive of a track when they’re that young is a disservice to them and the community. We need to offer them the option to explore different things.”
Munn said he would not be coming in to do a “turnaround job” in Aurora Public Schools.
He said the PACE and Vista 2015 programs are on the right track. In fact, he said he was one of the early supporters of concurrent enrollment programs in Colorado.
As for engaging parents, he said he would like to see the district start issuing “action reports” that clearly articulate how a child is doing and what a parent can do to support the child. He described the reports as “actionable intelligence.”
Munn said report cards and other student assessments can be difficult for the average parent to decipher.
“We need to do a better job interpreting that for parents, particularly when you have language barriers around the community.”
Tom Seigel was the superintendent of the Boulder Valley School District from 1997 to 2000. Since, then he has overseen the 18,000-student Bethel School District in Washington, which he described as being suburban and rural without a city in its boundaries.
Like Barry, he came to education with a military background most recently having worked as deputy chief of the U.S. Space Command’s Joint Space Support Team for U.S. European Command and U.S. Transportation Command. He noted that at one point he lived in Aurora.
Seigel was asked about how he would deal with the issue of transience among students. As someone with a military background, he said he could relate to the question.
“All you can do is the best you can do,” Seigel said. “We have to make sure we allow kids to be introduced to a new setting as quickly as possible.”
Seigel said his current district provides busing to homeless students so they can remain at the same school – despite moving around – so there is “some solid foundation for everyday life rather than bouncing from school to school.”
As for presenting a game plan for Aurora, Seigel said he would come with open ears and an open mind.
“Every job is different. You figure out what has to be done for the mission, and figure out how to get there.”
Seigel said he would fight for more resources for public schools in the state.
“You have to have a reasonable level of finance to actually do this,” Seigel said. “Public education is a labor-intensive operation. If you want quality people, you have to pay enough…and give resources to do it well.”
He said research has shown that smaller class size does make a difference at the lower grade level, which also costs money.
If you look at Singapore or Finland he said the U.S. might consider adding to the length of the school day or school year. In addition, more money is needed to address added demands of teaching students whose native language is not English, he said.
Seigel cited the words of his grandmother, “You get what you pay for.”
Seigel was asked about his time in Boulder Valley and how he handled site-based management. He said it’s a balancing act between creating accountability and forging an environment where creativity can bloom.
“You have to make sure, while you have decentralized execution, that there is overall organization to the system. It is a system. There needs to be continuity.”
Seigel cited one example in Boulder Valley in which a debate was raging over the best way to teach reading – phonics or whole language. He quickly realized that every teacher had a different interpretation of terms used around literacy instruction. So, each elementary school teacher was required to undergo a two-week training to ensure that dialogue would be constructive.