The high school at the heart of Aurora Public Schools’ most ambitious school improvement efforts will have a new interim principal this fall.
The suburban school district has released Mark Roberts from his principalship duties at Aurora Central High School and offered him a new position within the district, a spokeswoman confirmed.
Roberts’ exit comes as Aurora school officials have earned preliminary nods from their school board and the State Board of Education to begin creating a plan for a network of schools — including Aurora Central — that would work together outside of some state and district policies to improve learning for students
“In light of this desire for change, APS will be hiring an interim leader with unique experience to assist with this change,” spokeswoman Patti Moon said in a statement. “We can assure the Aurora Central community that the interim principal will actively engage students and families while focusing on improving student achievement.”
Moon declined further comment until Roberts accepted the job or not.
Roberts did not return an email request for an interview. He was principal at Aurora Central for two years. Under his leadership, the academically struggling school, which has run out of time on the state’s accountability timeline, made slight improvements on tests scores. But impressions of Roberts’ tenure have been mixed among community members, parents, students, and staff.
Robert’s replacement will be one of 11 new principals in APS this fall.
This year APS changed the way it screened for and hired principals. But given the proximity to the start of the school year, Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn will make the selection of who replaces Roberts.
The most substantial change to the process is what APS’s Chief Personnel Officer Damon Smith calls “performance-based activities.”
Principal candidates, very early in the application process, were asked to role play three or four different scenarios principals might encounter on a daily basis. Those situations included providing a teacher with feedback on a lesson, dissecting student data and creating a strategy to improve results, and working through a parent complaint.
One of the reasons why APS changed how it hired principals was because of student achievement, Smith said.
“In our district, we have a lot of work to do,” Smith said. “We need to get a better understanding of a person’s ability.”
Between the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school year, 16 APS schools will have new principals. Of those, nine are on the state’s accountability watch list for poor academic performance.
Hiring an effective principal is paramount to boosting student learning, said Kim Knous Dolan, associate director at the Donnell-Kay Foundation, who has lead research on Colorado school principals.
(Disclosure: Chalkbeat Colorado is a grantee of the Donnell-Kay Foundation.)
“A principal is the person who is going to hire teachers, support teachers, hopefully keep teachers, who are the most important in student learning gains,” Knous Dolan said. “Principals are the glue that makes sure the entire school is achieving and growing.”
Knous Dolan and other education observers interviewed by Chalkbeat noted the growing pressures on and different responsibilities of principals makes it difficult to recruit and identify quality leaders. That challenge is even more difficult when hiring a principal to turn around an academically struggling campus.
“Turnaround leaders in particular need a relentless focus on achievement, need to be able influence others, and impact change,” Knous Dolan said.
Peter Sherman, the state’s school turnaround leader, added that school district officials hiring principals need to think carefully about the unique challenges each school has and what skills are need to address those challenges.
“I don’t think there is an ideal principal description,” Sherman said. “Schools need different people at different times.”
To help build those skills in new and veteran principals, the Colorado Department of Education has given $1.6 million to 13 school districts , including Aurora, to send 45 principals to specialized turnaround training.
That training might be useful for whoever goes on to lead Aurora Central, said Michelle Ancell, vice president of the Aurora Central High School alumni association.
“I think the issues facing Central are very complicated,” she said. “They go beyond the classroom and the school building. … I think the issues that have faced every principal at Central — including Dr. Roberts — are going to affect the new principal as well. Not only the academic issues but the societal issues as well.”