State accountability

More Aurora schools slip onto the state’s academic watch list

Students at Aurora's Boston K-8 school in spring 2015. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post).

Six Aurora schools are no longer on a path to facing state sanctions for low performance, according to new preliminary ratings state officials sent to districts.

Aurora officials shared the news of those six school improvements with the district’s Board of Education Tuesday night. But the update also included news that another seven schools that weren’t on the state’s watch list have slipped and are now on it. Several others, including Aurora Central High School, failed to make enough improvements to get off.

In total, 19 Aurora schools this year have been flagged by the state for low test scores. That’s more than double the number of schools that were on the state’s academic watch list when Superintendent Rico Munn was hired three years ago to boost student achievement.

Because of the poor performance of its schools, the district also remains on the state’s watch list, but has one more year to show significant improvement before the state is required to take action. The district serving more than 42,000 students is the largest on the state’s watch list.

Munn said Tuesday the district is not where it needs to be yet, but said that there are “positive signs,” and that it’s too early to change the district’s improvement strategies.

Aurora schools on the state’s watch list |
Fletcher Community School
Gateway High School
North Middle School
Sixth Avenue Elementary
South Middle School
Vaughn Elementary
Virginia Court Elementary
Sable Elementary
Wheeling Elementary
Paris Elementary
Aurora Central High School
Jewell Elementary
Dartmouth Elementary
Kenton Elementary
Laredo Elementary
Aurora Hills Middle School
East Middle School
Vista Peak Prep
AXL Academy (charter)

The district’s most ambitious reform effort is the creation of an “innovation zone.” Approved earlier this year by the State Board of Education, five of the district’s schools have received waivers from some union, district and state rules. That freedom allows the schools to extend their day, create their own curriculum and give principals flexibility to staff their schools.

Another school that remains on the state’s watch list, Fletcher Community School, is in the process of being converted into a charter school.

“We are not waiting for CDE to give us a certain mandate,” said Lamont Browne, executive director of autonomous schools. “We are being proactive to improve our schools now.”

The latest preliminary ratings for the schools don’t capture all of those changes, officials pointed out.

“It’s too early to evaluate the work of the innovation zone,” Munn said. “It’s too early to evaluate a conversion process. It’s too early to evaluate some of that stuff.”

During Tuesday’s board meeting, district staff told the board about anecdotal evidence showing improvements in school culture, declines in suspensions and expulsions, and increased engagement from students and teachers.

The ratings the state released Tuesday are not final, Munn told his school board, and the district plans to appeal some of them. The state will finalize ratings later this winter.

In the case of schools or districts, Colorado law says the state board must take action after five years of low performance based on reviews by the state. State officials could direct the district to close schools, turn over management to third party operators or charters, or create innovation plans.

Aurora Central High School is the only district school that has been on the state’s lowest performance ratings for five years and again failed to make improvements, meaning it will face state sanctions later this year.

Munn said the district will ask the state board to accept the already approved innovation plan as the state’s corrective action for the school. If it is accepted, the school would have more time to show improvements with the same plan.

Munn says the district is also going to look at the six schools that moved off the list: Century Elementary, Lansing Elementary, Lyn Knoll Elementary, Mrachek Middle School, Boston K-8 and Vista PEAK Exploratory. All schools except for Boston K-8 were on the state watch list for only one year. Boston K-8 had been on the clock for four years. State data on student growth, released last month, showed Boston K-8’s middle school students showed significant growth.

“It’s a lot of individual stories,” Munn said. “That rolls up to a district story at a certain level as to what trends are we seeing. How do we build on things that are working and stabilize those things?”

Munn says they have early indications that help provided by consultants hired to work with the schools on various issues such as discipline and teaching, are proving successful and said he is pleased with the number of teachers and administrators receiving training.

“We did a lot of launching over the first year and a half and this year is going to be about monitoring and about making sure that we got the right capacity,” Munn said. “I think it’s more about digging into the work.”


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.