Questions and Answers

Aurora Central’s new principal: ‘I want to help this community’

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Aurora Central High School has been labeled as failing by the state for five years.

When hundreds of incoming freshman arrive for their first day at Aurora Central High School in August, they’ll be greeted by a familiar face: their former middle school principal.

And that’s exactly the way Gerardo De La Garza wants it.

De La Garza, who was principal for nine years at North Middle School in Aurora, is the new principal at Aurora Central.

And he arrives at a pivotal time: The high school is one of the state’s lowest academically performing high schools and could face state sanctions as soon as 2017.

One of the reasons De La Garza accepted the position, arguably one of the most difficult in Colorado’s education community, was the chance to improve the school for his students.

As part of a school improvement plan, which has received a tentative OK from the State Board of Education, Aurora Public Schools will begin a process to free Aurora Central, and several other schools, from district and state bureaucratic red tape. By creating an Innovation Zone, as its known under state law, the district hopes to create an opportunity for schools like Aurora Central to meet the unique needs of their students.

Gerardo De La Garza
Gerardo De La Garza

It will be up to De La Garza, began his career in Denver Public Schools, to lead the school’s community of students, teachers, and parents, through this transitional period and — ideally — boost student learning at the same time.

And that excites De La Garza.

“I know we can come up with a plan to turn this thing around,” he said.

Chalkbeat spoke with De La Garza on Wednesday, his fourth day on the job. The interview below has been edited for clarity and brevity.

How did you come to get this position, which is arguably the most difficult job in Colorado’s public education community right now?
When I heard about the innovation zone plan I had a conversation with my director and said, “When this thing gets going I would like to be a part of it…”

I end up sending most of my middle school kids here. So, I have a vested interest in what was going on.

At the end of the school year, my director asked me if I was serious. I talked it over with my family, my team at North, and other colleagues and decided it was the right decision.

So why do you want to be at Aurora Central?
These are my kids. And I think that it’s really powerful for our students to be able to see a face and see somebody that they know who cares about them and is going to do everything that he can to make sure that this place is a safe environment to learn and somebody there that is going to listen and go to bat for them.

I want to help this community to make this one of the best high schools in Aurora. I think it can be done. We have some great kids that come out of North.

How would you define your leadership style? What does that mean to you? How do you work? What can teachers and students expect from you?
What they can expect from me is somebody that’s going to come in and do a lot of listening and a lot of learning, and then lead.

I want to know what’s working so we can continue those practices and refine them and make them even better. I want to know what are the practices that aren’t working. If they’re not working, let’s stop doing them or fix them. We need to get the right people into the right places to do the job.

I am going to come in here and be collaborative: I want to work with you and we’re going to get the right people into the right places to get this thing turned around.

More philosophically, what do you think the role of a principal is, especially a turnaround school?
A turnaround principal needs to find out what are the best practices out there that have demonstrated that they work. Let’s see if those are some practices that we can bring here, to Aurora Central. I’m not saying that it needs to be a carbon copy. Let’s see if we can bring that here to Central, adjust it to the needs of our community and make sure that it’s the right way to do things here and then monitor it as well.

My job as a leader is to make sure that we are putting those things into place with fidelity. To make sure that the data we’re collecting is real data, to tell us if it’s working right.

What specific skill sets do you have that you believe makes you a good fit for Aurora Central? What’s in your resume that makes you the ideal person to lead central through Central?
I’ve been in this community for nine years so I understand the needs of this community, the needs of these students [and] of these families. That is a unique skill set. It takes a leader to be able to build the capacity of those folks and provide the support and resources those people need in order to be the best they can be to meet the needs of the students. I’ve been successful at doing it in all that locations that I’ve been at.

At North, student achievement data rose each year for your first seven years and then dipped in your eighth. There was a significant dip, 3 or 4 points in each subject area. And in some instances some students lost as much ground as they gained the year before. What do you think happened there? And how did you correct it?
When I got to North, my number one priority was building the capacity of teachers through professional development. And we worked very hard at that. And as a result we saw student achievement going up because teachers became better at their craft.

A lot of these quality teachers left North to take on leadership positions through out the district. What ended up happening is we hired a lot of new people, [and] unfortunately, their heart wasn’t in it. They weren’t ready to work with this kind of demographic and we quickly had to make an adjustment there.

So, the next year, we did an about-face with our selection process and asked different questions. We wanted to get to the heart of why those candidates wanted to be at North, why they wanted to work with middle school students. There’s going to be less turnover at North this year and I expect scores will go back up.

What do you need from Aurora Public Schools officials to be successful?
I don’t really know exactly what those supports will be right now or what they will look like. But I need to make sure that they will be there to support me when I reach out to them. With our system and our model in place I have no doubt that they’ll be there to support me.

What is going to be different on day one at Central compared to the last day of school last year?
One of the things that will change — and it will be a visible change — is administrator presence. My number one priority coming in here is school culture and making sure that kids understand and know who their principal is, who their assistant principals are, who their deans are … getting these kids into their classrooms where the learning needs to happen but doing that in a warm, demanding way. There will be a dramatic change as far as visibility of administrators.

You are one person. There are more than 2,000 students here. So, what systems do you need to put in place to ensure that every student is appropriately challenged to either catch up, stay up, or move up?
My expectation is that myself and my administrative team are in every classroom on a weekly basis meeting with that teacher, giving them feedback on their instruction within 24 hours. We will monitor ourselves and hold ourselves accountable to do that.

As an administrator, how do you know student learning is going on?
I want to hear discourse. Student-to-student, where they’re sharing their thinking with each other to solve problems. And the teacher is facilitating the learning. I want to see students doing the work, not the teachers.

There’s an ongoing debate in public education of whether adults can improve schools that serve predominantly poor students. Some believe schools can, regardless of poverty. Others believe schools can’t be tasked with boosting achievement without taking on poverty first. What do you subscribe to?
If you have the right people that are willing to do the right job and believe in these kids then it can be done.

Chalkbeat intern Doug Hrdlicka contributed.

performance based

Aurora superintendent is getting a bonus following the district’s improved state ratings

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

Aurora’s school superintendent will receive a 5 percent bonus amounting to $11,820, in a move the board did not announce.

Instead, the one-time bonus was slipped into a routine document on staff transitions.

Tuesday, the school board voted on the routine document approving all the staff changes, and the superintendent bonus, without discussion.

The document, which usually lists staff transfers, resignations, and new hires, included a brief note at the end that explained the additional compensation by stating it was being provided because of the district’s rise in state ratings.

“Pursuant to the superintendent’s contract, the superintendent is entitled to a one-time bonus equal to 5 percent of his base salary as the result of the Colorado Department of Education raising APS’ district performance framework rating,” the note states.

The superintendent’s contract, which was renewed earlier this year, states the superintendent can receive up to a 10 percent bonus per year for improvements in state ratings. The same bonus offer was in Munn’s previous contract with the district.

The most recent state ratings, which were released in the fall, showed the state had noted improvements in Aurora Public Schools — enough for the district to be off the state’s watchlist for low performance. Aurora would have been close to the five years of low-performance ratings that would have triggered possible state action.

“I am appreciative of the Board’s recognition of APS’ overall improvement,” Superintendent Munn said in a statement Wednesday. “It is important to recognize that this improvement has been thanks to a team effort and as such I am donating the bonus to the APS Foundation and to support various classroom projects throughout APS.”

This is the only bonus that Munn has received in Aurora, according to a district spokesman.

In addition to the bonus, and consistent with his contract and the raises other district employees will receive, Munn will also get a 2.93 percent salary increase on July 1. This will bring his annual salary to $243,317.25.

At the end of the board meeting, Bruce Wilcox, president of the teachers union questioned the way the vote was handled, asking why the compensation changes for teachers and compensation changes for other staff were placed as separate items on the meeting’s agenda, but the bonus was simply included at the bottom of a routine report, without its own notice.

“It is clear that the association will unfortunately have to become a greater, louder voice,” Wilcox said. “It is not where we want to be.”

budget book

Aurora school board approves the budget, but will continue transparency discussions to change the level of detail available

A student works at Tollgate Elementary School in Aurora. (Photo by Nic Garcia, Chalkbeat)

Aurora school board members on Tuesday unanimously approved next school year’s $746.8 million budget after months of heated discussions over whether the district had provided the public enough detail about it.

The budget represents a 4.7 percent drop from the current year, because of declines in enrollment and thus state dollars. It does include money for salary increases, but it was Aurora’s transparency, or lack of it, that has generated the most controversy.

But just because the budget was approved doesn’t mean the transparency discussion has ended.

New board member Kyla Armstrong-Romero — the first to press for more information after district officials said they planned on raising student athletic fees — said Tuesday she will keep asking the district for more detailed budget documents.

“I understand the necessity to approve the budget on time,” Armstrong-Romero said. But, she said, she’s back to the drawing board to see how to go about making more requests.

Brett Johnson, Aurora’s chief financial officer, said releasing more detail would be better, but said his department didn’t have the capacity to change what it provides quickly.

“We want to make a budget book that is more user friendly,” Johnson told the board. But he added, “there would be a lot of upfront costs associated with rebuilding and rethinking the style of this budget.”

As an example, he said, the Cherry Creek district has double the budget staff that Aurora does, including one full-time employee that collects numbers from schools.

After November’s election, Aurora’s new board majority began to insist on more budget detail – in contrast with the previous board, which sought budget overviews.

Aurora Public Schools has had four budget directors in four years, including Johnson who started 15 months ago. The finance department has struggled to maintain consistency.

In recent years, board members had prioritized accesible information that could easily make sense to anyone. Officials pointed to the creation of a two-page budget summary for the first time last year, and the launch last summer of an interactive website that breaks down budget allocations.

Armstrong-Romero said she wanted more detail to understand where next year’s budget was different from the current year’s budget or previous years’ budgets. She asked for comparable line-item documents, and explanations of what made up big buckets of spending.

Specifically, she asked for numbers to understand the tradeoffs of not making certain budget cuts.

Superintendent Rico Munn told the board that he could not ask staff to create multiple proposed budgets just to detail all the various scenarios.

Board members talked about other district’s budgets. Denver Public Schools, for example, launched a new budget book earlier this year that includes a breakdown of where every dollar allocated per student gets spent.

“For me, it’s inconceivable that our community does not merit the same level of transparency,” Armstrong-Romero said.

Munn said that there are differences in communities, but disputed the thought that different information meant less transparency.

“Our community certainly deserves transparency, but that looks different ways in different communities,” Munn said. “It may be fair to say we haven’t struck the right tone or that there’s room to improve, which we’ve already indicated, but clearly we are not trying to hide anything.”

Some board members said that they didn’t need details down to how much was spent on each pencil at each school, but board member Kevin Cox said the conversation doesn’t have to be about one or the other, and suggested both a detailed book, and overview summaries should be available for the public.

Aurora is already searching for software to automate its budget and to skip manual data entry.

Johnson said that currently three people enter 30,000 pieces of data. “We are hoping to automate that with a better system,” he said.

Jonathan Travers, a partner at the Massachusetts-based nonprofit Education Resource Strategies, suggested districts can provide budget detail in many ways. One way is to focus on the strategy behind financial decisions.

He said “hundreds of pages of detail on accounting… is far less helpful than a few pages” on the ways in which the district allocates resources.

Board members also talked earlier this month about doing an audit, or hiring a consultant to help rethink the budget.

Colorado already requires outside audits of school district spending. Those audit reports look at many aspects of finance procedures, and are made public, but they lag because they focus on the actual dollar amounts after they’ve been spent.

Budgets, however, aren’t required to be audited because they are only proposed plan for where to allocate money.

At a budget hearing, one teacher said he supported Armstrong-Romero’s request for more budget information to help the board make decisions, and reminded the four new board members that they ran on a platform of transparency.