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Aurora Central dodges drastic measures, but state wants it to hire an academic partner

A teacher and a student teacher work with 9th grade students in an English Language Arts class at Aurora Central High School.
A teacher and a student teacher work with 9th grade students in an English Language Arts class at Aurora Central High School.
Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat

State officials will ask Aurora Central High School to hire a partner with experts in instruction to accelerate the big changes in academic achievement that the school has yet to see.

The decision means the school once again has avoided the state’s more drastic measures for improving low-performing schools. The State Board of Education recognized some improvements that the school has made, and acknowledged the challenges of turning around a large high school.

Aurora Central, a school of about 1,900, has failed to improve academic achievement for years, and in some measures, has seen a decrease in achievement.

But school and Aurora district officials argued to the State Board of Education Wednesday that they’ve made changes that will eventually sustain academic improvement. Those changes, they say, have so far produced higher graduation rates, lower teacher turnover, and better parent engagement.

Commissioner Katy Anthes, who visited the school last week, said she noticed a significant change in the school atmosphere compared with her previous visits. She also said the school is unique in Colorado.

State Board members said at this point, they favor allowing Aurora Central to follow the path it started on a few years ago. The school’s “innovation plan” allows it flexibility to not follow some state laws, parts of the teachers union contract, and some district policies.

But board members also worried that the plan is not detailed enough to produce the dramatic improvement in student achievement that the school needs. So they suggested adding an instructional or academic partner — as opposed to an external manager. The state can order an external management, but a partnership like this is not one of the orders allowed by state law. Board member Steve Durham said it would be a “strong suggestion.”

Aurora district officials said after the hearing that they were not concerned about adding a partner.

Jeff Park, the district’s director of autonomous schools who oversees Aurora’s innovation schools including Aurora Central, said it was an idea that the district has considered.

The district, in preparing to face the state, had done its own internal review, had contracted with another company to do another review, and had asked Mass Insight, the company that has been working with Aurora Central in the last few years, to also do an evaluation.

All reviewers, including a state review panel of outside experts, agreed Aurora Central has been doing good work. But all of their reports also said the high school’s instructional practices needed improvement.

Gerardo de la Garza, the school’s principal, told the state board that part of the problem has been with staff inexperience. Data presented Wednesday show half of the school’s staff have only been teaching between one and three years. De la Garza said he has worked to create time for teachers to collaborate and plan together, reflect on data, dig into how to help individual students, and create a system of observations for teachers.

Board members worried that still might not be enough. On Wednesday the board unanimously directed attorneys to draft an order requiring the school to continue its improvement efforts with its innovation plan while strongly suggesting that the school add an academic partner to help improve instruction.

The state board will vote on the order Thursday. The board discussed but did not come to an agreement on how long it will allow the school to try to improve.

Durham suggested allowing just one year.

Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn pointed out one year wouldn’t give the district much time to enlist and work with a partner before spring tests which determine the school’s rating that would be available next fall.

But state board President Angelika Schroeder said she could not accept the district’s suggestion that improvement might take three to five years, given that students are only in the school for four years.

Board member Joyce Rankin suggested that she might favor a two-year deadline, with a check-in in one year.

Munn said after the hearing that he wants to learn more about what such a check-in would encompass and what changes the state board would be allowed to make at that time.

Some board members also pointed out that they’re starting to work on a deeper analysis of what innovation status, the flexibility from law and policy that is granted to schools, is really doing for students. Results so far are mixed, and the state board is interested in a better analysis.

State Board members praised Aurora for its improvement of school culture, particularly in how it has worked to engage its diverse school community.

An Aurora parent, Knyaw Mu, praised the school for allowing her to be engaged and learn about how to help her children. Mu is an ethnic Karen from Southeast Asia, and spoke to the board through an interpreter.

Her oldest daughter will graduate this year, despite coming to this country in her freshman year.

“I understand now that I can be a leader for my family and for the kids in my community,” Mu said.

Schroeder also took time to address students of Aurora Central, many of whom wrote in to the State Board to stand up for their school and its efforts.

Schroeder said she was concerned that many felt the state thought of them as “bad kids.”

“There’s nothing further from the truth,” she said, adding that the State Board’s role is not about labeling the school, or its students, but rather, “to ensure your school is getting the attention and support it deserves.”

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