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Nicholas Garcia

Coalition: Aurora could do more to improve chronically failing schools

When Rico Munn was hired to lead Aurora Public Schools, the charge was clear: improve the inner suburb’s schools.

Two years later, a blistering report from 17 nonprofits claims that district officials are failing to meet that mandate.

The report’s authors, including several Denver-based education reform outfits, say Aurora officials have failed to explain their vision, engage parents and community members, and replicate successful schools that serve mostly poor and Latino students.

These factors, in part, have contributed to APS having 18 schools considered failing by the state, more than any other district besides Denver, and putting the district’s accreditation at risk, the report said.

But Superintendent Rico Munn counters that today, after months of listening to his community of teachers, principals, parents and civic leaders, the district is ready to take head on the needs of its schools and the students they serve.

“We were very intentional about laying the ground work for reform and turnaround,” Munn said. “We’re at a tipping point where we can accelerate the outcomes for our students.”

The report, the first of its kind to dive deep into Aurora’s struggles, is a prelude to a much larger conversation the city, its parents and schools are about to have: how to improve chronically low-performing schools.

“It’s difficult to come to terms with problems that are so close to home,” said Jordan Posamentie, a deputy policy director for the Center for Reinventing Public Education who has begun researching education changes in suburban school districts.

And those conversation about systemic education reform can often be grim.

“South (Middle School) is falling apart right now,” said Diana Castro, a parent volunteer for RISE Colorado, an organization that contributed to the report. “They sent us a letter that says if we want to move my brother to a different school we could. But we couldn’t because we live so close to the school, so he can walk.”

While those emotionally charged exchanges about improving failing schools are not new in urban centers like Denver, they are to suburbs like Aurora that were designed after World War II to serve mostly white and affluent families growing as a result of the baby boom.

Yet as demographics shift quickly in Aurora and across the nation, more observers of public education are increasingly paying attention to inner suburbs. And parents are awakening to the problems in their schools as as government sanctions, like those that Aurora faces, loom.

From bad to worse to — hopefully — better

Out of every 10 Aurora students, about six will graduate on time, two will go to college and one of those will need remediation when he or she arrives, the coalition’s report found.

“It makes me feel really sad,” Castro, whose daughter attends an APS preschool, said. “I’m scared. I don’t want my daughter to be one more statistic. It’s scary. It makes me upset.”

Graduation rates aren’t the district’s only concern, proficiency rates of APS students on state tests have fallen in reading and math and the gap between APS students and the state is widening.

Low-income students and students of color are performing worse in APS than in the rest of the state, including Denver.

Students learning English as a second language are also making slower progress than their peers in Denver, the report found.

And while the district has reduced suspensions, expulsions and referrals to law enforcement, less than half of students surveyed feel safe at school.

But the school system can turn a corner, Castro and the coalition believe.

Blessings, curses

Improving low-performing schools in suburbs comes with unique challenges and opportunities that education researchers are only now beginning to identify, Posamentie, the researcher, said.

“There are really interesting advantages to the suburbs addressing these problems if they get it right,” he said.

For example, growing suburbs like Aurora likely won’t have the option — and tough dilemma — of whether to close low performing schools. That’s because districts have no available space in other schools for students displaced by such closures. Instead, they can open new ones with unique models, something Aurora has already done.

Suburban school districts can also tap into usually strong volunteer bases and the local small business community, Posamentie said.

Another bonus: most suburban school districts already have lean central offices. That make bureaucratic shuffles like the one Aurora did last school year easier.

“When you don’t have that many people, you can get away with stronger change,” he said.

But there are drawbacks to being removed from an urban center.

Too often, Posamentie said, there’s a lack of infrastructure. Unreliable or scattered public transportation makes access to different schools difficult for low-income families trapped in pockets of poverty.

Suburban school districts with shrinking or stagnant budgets also can’t rely on generous donations to provide the additional support needed to educate more vulnerable students because they are traditionally focused on urban areas, Posamentie said.

And finally, the further away a school district is from the capitol, the less political clout they have to ask for resources.

But regardless of whether a school district is urban or suburban, Posamentie said, leaders must work together with teachers, parents and other community members to improve schools.

“To have the community work with the school district is essential,” he said. “For the community to be able to navigate the plan is really important.”

Slow and steady

Aurora is doing something, a lot of somethings, to improve its schools, said Superintendent Munn.

In his own report given to the city’s board of education Tuesday, Munn outlined all the steps the district has taken to improve schools up to this point, including reallocating more than $10 million dollars to schools, changing how it recruits and retains principals, and creating a turnaround leadership team.

The district has also launched several community-based committees to redesign up to five schools in the Original Aurora neighborhood, including Aurora Central High, that have been chronically under-performing.

Munn said he understands some of the frustration. But he cautioned the kind of fast and flashy change some in the education reform might hope for often doesn’t work.

“You can come in and move fast and move out of alignment with your community,” he said. “But that’s not helpful or sustainable.”

Moving forward, Aurora schools facing similar obstacles will work in teams to boost student learning. That includes 14 schools that are focused on culturally-responsive learning, Munn said.

The district also has a new annual review process for schools to identify what supports, such as increased teacher training or different curriculum, it needs from the district.

“We need to create more space for innovation in the district,” Munn said.

Among the coalitions report’s recommendations to do that:

  • Rewrite the district’s strategic plan with a timeline and milestones linked to student data
  • Engage parents and community members early on issues like school improvement plans, transportation, and before and after-school programing
  • Provide families with easy-to-understand school performance data in families’ native languages
  • Build new curriculum and programs for students who are learning English as a second language
  • Create room for charter schools

“I hope this report helps the district,” Castro said. “I hope the district takes this seriously and does something. I really hope so.”

A tale of two reports

Read the “If Not Now … ” report
Read Munn’s “CORE” report
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Diana Castro.