in the zone

Aurora officials moves forward with innovation plans, school board cautions for consensus

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
An Aurora Central High School student listens during his advanced science class in 2015.

Aurora school administrators are taking their first steps toward making Superintendent Rico Munn’s most ambitious school improvement strategy a reality, while the school board cautioned it won’t accept any sweeping changes without support from teachers and parents.

Munn’s plan is to use the state’s innovation schools law to create what he’s calling “ACTION Zones.” Clusters of schools will apply for waivers from district and state policies that will provide more flexibility over personnel, budget, curriculum and resources.

The idea is the schools will work together — mostly outside the district’s bureaucracy — to boost student achievement at some of the district’s lowest performing schools.

Aurora Public Schools, which is the largest school district on the state’s watch list for poor academic performance, has contracted with the education nonprofit Mass Insight Education to lead a variety of committees that will be tasked with redesigning up to five schools. Two of those committees began meeting last week.

The one-year contract with Mass Insight is for $600,000. APS may renew the contract for another two years at $600,000 annually.

Boston-based Mass Insight has worked with school districts across the country to improve chronically failing schools since 2010. During the last three years, Mass Insight helped the Jefferson Parish school district in Louisiana reduce its number of failing schools from 18 to four.

Mass Insight also has worked with the Colorado Department of Education since 2010. For the past three years, CDE has been a member of the nonprofit’s State Development Network, which helps state education departments craft and evaluate school improvement strategies.

While Munn is confident freeing his struggling schools of red tape is the best option for Aurora students, similar schools in Denver have produced mixed results. And costly consultants in other struggling school districts haven’t yielded the results state officials would want.

To win waivers in Colorado, the school committees must follow the state’s innovation school law, which requires proof of broad community support including a majority of a building’s teachers.

Still, school board members pressed Munn and officials from Mass Insight on building consensus for the school redesign plans at a meeting last week.

“If it’s a dictatorial process through a single individual, I don’t think the process will be viewed as authentic,” said board member Dan Jorgensen. “I will not vote for any plan that isn’t authentic.”

So far, only one school has been identified to participate in the district’s first ACTION Zone: Aurora Central High.

Aurora Central has been considered academically failing by the state for five years. The State Board of Education was supposed to level sanctions on the high school, which serves mostly Latino students from low-income homes, later this school year. However, legislation passed in the spring put a hold on the state’s accountability timeline.

Munn’s ACTION Zone plan is in part a pre-emptive strike to stave off state sanctions, which could include handing over low performing schools to charter authorizers or closing them. Munn sought and won the state board’s blessing to move forward with his plan this summer.

The APS administration is also considering including Boston K-8 and other primary schools that send students to Aurora Central as part of the plan.

Munn said he hopes to have detailed plans for the five schools to the school board for approval early next year. If the APS and state boards of education approve the plans, they’ll be rolled out for the 2016-2017 school year.


Struggling Aurora elementary must decide next steps on recommendations

Teachers at Lyn Knoll Elementary should get more than 20 minutes per day for planning, school officials should consider switching to a district-selected curriculum for literacy, and the school should find a way to survey neighborhood families who send their children to school elsewhere.

Those are some of the recommendations for improvement presented to Aurora’s school board this week by a committee overseeing the work at Lyn Knoll.

But because the school has a status that allows it more autonomy, those recommendations cannot be turned into mandates, committee members told the school board this week. Instead, school officials must now weigh these suggestions and decide which they might follow.

Bruce Wilcox, president of the Aurora teachers union and member of the joint steering committee, said he doesn’t expect every recommendation “to come to fruition,” but said whether or not each recommendation is followed is not what’s important.

“It really will come down to, is improvement made or not,” Wilcox said.

Rico Munn, the superintendent of Aurora Public Schools, had recommended Lyn Knoll for turnaround after the school fell to the state’s lowest quality rating last year. Enrollment at the school has also dropped. But the Aurora school board voted instead to wait another year to see if the school itself can make improvements.

Munn Thursday suggested that the board may still make part of that decision contingent on approval of the school’s action plan.

The union-led joint steering committee that wrote the recommendations offered to monitor and guide the school during the 2018-19 school year as it tries to improve, but it’s a role the group has never taken on before. Part of that role has already started with committee members visiting the school for observations.

“The purpose of the joint steering committee is to be a place the schools can go to and ask for guidance,” Wilcox said. “This is where it’s doing well.”

Lyn Knoll is one of three district-run schools in Aurora that have pilot status, which was created about 10 years ago when the district worked with its teachers union to create a path for schools to earn autonomy.

This was before Colorado passed the law that allows schools to seek innovation status, which is a state process that grants schools waivers from some state, district, and union rules as a way to try new ideas.

“At the time that pilot schools came in, our district was very lockstep,” Wilcox said. “What was done at one school was done at the other. That was the framework.”

Schools that wanted to try something different or unique could apply to the district for pilot status if they had a plan with school and community support. Each pilot school also had to create a school governing board that could include teachers and community members that would help the school make decisions.

At Lyn Knoll, one of the popular innovations involved letting students have physical education every day of the week, something not common in many schools.

Another of the district’s pilot schools, William Smith High School, uses its status to lead a school unlike any other in the district, with a project-based learning model where students learn standards from different subjects through real-life scenarios and projects.

The Aurora district, like many districts around the country, now has created more ways beyond pilot status for principals to make specific changes at their school.

In Aurora, Munn said the current structure of the district, which now has “learning communities,” is meant to be responsive to the differences between groups of schools.

“We’re really trying to strongly connect different parts of the district and be flexible and there are different ways of doing that,” Munn said.

Schools can come to the district and request permission to use a different curriculum, for instance, or to change their school calendar so students can be released early on certain days for teacher planning time. There’s also a district application process so that schools that need specific help or resources from the district can request them. And more recently, schools that want several, structured, waivers are more likely to apply for the state’s innovation status, which provides “a stronger framework,” Munn said.

The district said current pilot school principals could not speak about their school model for this story.

Lyn Knoll currently has no principal for next year. Officials at Thursday’s board meeting suggested waiting until a new principal is identified or hired so that person could work with the school’s governing board on a plan for change. It was unclear how soon that might happen, although finalists are being scheduled for interviews next week.

Clarification: The story has been updated to reflect that the need for a principal at Lyn Knoll is for next year.

Give and take

Aurora district may start sharing local dollars with charters a year early, in exchange for higher fees

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at the AXL Academy charter school in Aurora work on math problems in 2015.

The Aurora school district has a plan for how to comply with last year’s law requiring that districts share local funding with their charter schools, and it includes raising the fees that it charges those schools.

The law requires districts that weren’t already sharing the funds from voter-approved tax increases to do so.

Rico Munn, Aurora’s superintendent, argued against the move last year, but the law ultimately passed. It allows school district’s time to plan and doesn’t go into effect until the fall of 2019.

District leaders told the school board during a meeting last week there was no reason to wait.

“Our budget decisions don’t get easier in future years, and it’s kind of our position that it’s easier to rip the bandaid off now than it is to wait one more year for something that we know is coming,” Brett Johnson, the district’s chief financial officer, told the board.

District staff told the school board that Aurora Public Schools initially didn’t have many charter schools, and so provided many services at no charge. But now that more charters have opened in the district and as more are expected to come, a recent evaluation has helped the district come up with updated fees.

Currently, charter schools in Aurora pay a flat fee of $12,000, plus additional fees that add up to roughly $750 per student. The district is proposing to do away with the flat fee and add almost $200 per student in additional fees, bringing the total to $949. Some schools will save money and others will pay more, depending on how many students they have.

The increased fees mean the district will recoup some of the money they would otherwise have to hand over to charter schools, but for charter schools, the deal still means more funding.

Aurora currently gives charter schools about $3.05 million a year. Under the new law, the district expects its charter school allocation would be $6.54 million. The net increase in what the district spends on charter schools, after the increased fees, would be $2.5 million.

Board members supported the plan, questioning why the district had been “undercharging” charter schools in the first place.

“Certain services were done in-kind just because we had a smaller number of schools,” said Mackenzie Stauffer, the district’s charter school coordinator.

The services the district provides to charter schools can include administering or having a monitor for assessments, or helping schools evaluate a student who might be gifted.

The Aurora district created an office of autonomous schools in 2016. The office includes one staff member who just works with charter schools and whose position is funded by the required fees charged to all Aurora charter schools.

That department has created a new review process for charter school applications and a new process for charter school renewals, among other work.

“What we’re trying to do is make sure that the fee schedule moving forward can support the growth of charter schools, which we already know is happening,” Stauffer said.

Dan Schaller, director of governmental affairs for the Colorado League of Charter Schools, said he was not aware of other districts looking at similar deals and questioned the pairing of both sharing and charging charters money.

“My question would be why now?” Schaller said. “Given the whole debate and intent about equalizing funding, why would they be trying to do anything to circumvent it?”

Kathryn Mullins, the founder and executive director of Vega Collegiate Academy, said she learned about the proposal earlier this month at a meeting with charter school leaders, and said most were in support.

“For us personally, it makes sense,” Mullins said.