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Aurora Central High School's interim principal Gerardo De La Garza at a meeting in February.

Aurora Central High School’s interim principal Gerardo De La Garza at a meeting in February.

Nicholas Garcia

Why choosing the right principal is so crucial for Aurora Central’s future

AURORA — Aurora Central High is a school with a plan but not a principal.

After months of meetings and negotiations, the school board Tuesday approved the struggling high school’s ambitious redesign plan knowing Superintendent Rico Munn must still appoint a leader to unite a community of students, teachers and parents behind a last-ditch effort to save Central from state sanctions.

That principal will also be tasked with navigating uncharted territory in the state’s fifth largest school district. Aurora Central, along with three other schools in the Original Aurora neighborhood, are poised to be the first so-called innovation schools in a district historically known for lock-step bureaucracy and top-down instruction.

Those schools will be able to change curriculum, hire and fire teachers, and engage parents in new ways without first gaining district approval.

Principals in similar positions have stumbled before, creating false starts for school communities most in need of drastic intervention to improve student achievement. In Denver, the district with the most innovation schools, principal turnover has been highest at schools with the district’s most ambitious turnaround and innovation plans.

Finding the right person for the job may be the most crucial component to Aurora Central’s future and Munn’s school improvement efforts. His school board, state education officials and the state’s education reform advocacy community are watching closely.

“The building leader is going to be key to make this all come together,” said board member JulieMarie Shepherd. “As a board member, I feel good about how the plan has been developed. I feel it’s a thoughtful plan. But if we don’t have the right leader in place, I feel bringing all those pieces together will be a challenge.”

Peter Sherman, the state’s chief school improvement officer, said he applauded the school district for being proactive at Aurora Central, which could be shut down or turned over or converted to a charter school if improvements aren’t made.

But he echoed Shepherd’s concern about identifying a school leader.

“We do have concerns that a permanent leader has not been identified for Aurora Central and think that’s a really critical element of any plan,” Sherman said. “So the burden is even higher on the district to be able to hire a leader who can step into this plan and will embrace it fully and implement.”

Munn, in a February interview, said the leadership at the schools has been a top priority for the district and one of the reasons why the schools were chosen to embark on this new work.

Aurora Central has been led this year by interim principal Gerardo De La Garza. De La Garza’s administration, as well as the process to redesign Aurora Central, has drawn mixed reviews from teachers and community members.

De La Garza, the third person to lead Aurora Central in five years, is a candidate for the permanent principal position.

One teacher, who addressed the school board earlier this month, called the school culture toxic and divided.

“If you want Aurora Central not to be shut down, you’ll need new administration,” said Linda Bayer, an Aurora Central teacher who was fired after her first year at the school. About one-third of the current Aurora Central staff is not returning next fall either because they were fired or requested a transfer, district officials said.

Others have voiced concern about what they characterize as the De La Garza administration’s unclear expectations for teachers and students.

De La Garza defended his leadership in creating a vision for the school. He also disagreed that the school is divided, as school board member Cathy Wildman characterized it at an earlier March meeting. He pointed to 82 percent of teachers who approved the school’s overhaul plan.

But he did acknowledge that some relationships needed to be healed.

“One of the first things we definitely need to do is ensure there is a culture of trust and collaboration at Central,” De La Garza said Tuesday. “One of the first steps we’re taking is bringing the staff together and asking them to be part of the process to detail the plan. We don’t want to do this in isolation. We want teachers to be part of this.”

How important that detail is without a leader in place is up for debate, said Rob Stein, who served as principal at Denver’s Manual High School between 2007 and 2010. He was hired to reopen the school after the school board shut it down for chronic low performance, similar to Aurora Central’s.

Stein is currently the assistant superintendent of the Roaring Fork school district.

Similar to the Aurora Central process, Stein was hired after the district and community created a plan for the school and won waivers from some district rules.

“I did my best to honor it,” he said, adding that the principals to run Manual since he left have charted their own courses.

Stein was hired before the Colorado law which created the innovation schools status was passed. Manual later went on to be one of the state’s first innovation schools. But Stein said there are many flaws in the law, including laying so much burden on the school’s principal.

He said most principals are trained to be instructional leaders, not executive leaders who create a vision for a school community, develop a team of coaches and teachers, and manage multi million dollar budgets.

“Executive leadership is key,” he said. “And unfortunately, principals aren’t trained to be executive leaders.”

Stein said he left Manual, which was showing signs of improvement, in part because of the roadblocks he faced with Denver administrators. In response, Superintendent Tom Boasberg said he was thankful for Stein’s work at Manual and committed to resolving tensions between the innovation schools and the district.

Since then, the school has been led by three other principals, including one who overspent the school’s budget by more than $600,000. Student achievement has also declined.

As part of the principal selection process at Aurora Central, district administrators conducted focus groups with staff, students and family. Candidates will go through a four-step interview process, including a community forum in April.