action plan

Less is more: Aurora principals simplify their school improvement efforts

A social studies teacher gives a class to freshman at Aurora Central High School in April 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Five Aurora Public Schools that have the freedom to try new ways to improve student performance are turning to a basic principle: keeping the focus narrow.

Last year, the schools started rolling out the work laid out in their state-approved innovation plans. There were bold, ambitious ideas for change.

As it turns out, principals felt they were doing a little bit of everything.

“They were all well-intended,” said Lamont Browne, Aurora’s director of autonomous schools. “But if you have too many goals, you have no goals.”

In May, district officials and consultants from Mass Insight who are helping execute the plans started working on a different approach with the five northwest Aurora schools. This year, each of the schools has a detailed plan focused on just three specific goals.

Principals, along with leadership teams at each school, worked through the summer and the first few months of the school year to identify three goals that would make the biggest differences at their schools and have been tweaking their plans to accomplish them.

Among the schools’ goals: improving attendance and decreasing lost time from behavior issues.

“This specifically is not just about innovation but about school turnaround and school improvement,” Browne said. “There are some things that are just, ‘This is what good schools are doing.’”

Principals say it’s working.

Gerardo De La Garza, principal of Aurora Central High School, which is the lowest performing school in the zone and has innovation status as part of its state-ordered improvement plan, said he’s already seeing big attendance boosts.

In the first quarter of the school year, average daily attendance at Central was “hovering around 86 percent,” De La Garza said. That’s up from average daily attendance of about 73 percent last year. The number of students identified as having severe and chronic absences also has improved by about 45 percent, he said.

Part of the work to improve attendance has included hiring a student engagement advocate, tracking student attendance bi-weekly and creating intervention plans for students who are chronically absent.

“Having a goal around that attendance has helped,” De La Garza said. “But we continue to look at our data and continue to look at our action steps, and we’ll see where we’re at at the end of the year.”

Another goal at Central, and one that relates to attendance, is about changing the way students are disciplined at the school to stop many from missing classes during suspensions or expulsions.

As part of that work, De La Garza changed the administration’s structure so that each grade level has a dean specifically working with that group of students and teachers on behavior issues. That dean also meets with teachers and other staff to talk about comprehensive plans for students who need help. And the school’s teachers and administrators are now all getting training in restorative practices — work that emphasizes guiding students to think about their actions and the effect they had on others so they can come up with corrections to their own behavior.

Aurora West, a middle and high school that’s also part of the innovation zone, is focusing on restorative practices this year as part of its plan.

“It’s both supporting teachers on how to build positive relationships in the classroom as well as on implementing restorative practices circles,” said Taisiya ‘Taya’ Tselolikhina, principal of Aurora West. “It’s also supporting our campus monitors and putting systems into place so that each campus monitor forms strong relationships with students too.”

Tselolikhina said she’s also seeing early improvement is in teacher effectiveness.

“We’re collecting data on every teacher’s data plan and we are observing to see, how does the planning match implementation,” Tselolikhina said.

Twenty-seven percent of teachers were proficient at the start of the year, and now 78 percent are, she said.

Tselolikhina said that she had originally written the goal shooting to have 80 percent of teachers proficient in demonstrating “excellence in planning and delivering rigorous, standards aligned lessons.”

“When I presented to staff, they asked, ‘Why 80 percent? What really drove that number?’” Tselolikhina said. “We asked staff, ‘What do you think it should be?’ They said we should be able to get to 100 percent. So we changed it.”

Teachers also jumped in to identify the parts of teaching they could help each other with, and areas of teaching where they could benefit from training.

“Last year’s goals, I wouldn’t say they were bad goals and we’re still trying to improve achievement at the end of the day, but it’s about, how are we going to do it?” Tselolikhina said. “You can’t just hope you’re going to improve.”

District officials are meeting with principals regularly and are re-evaluating the goals quarterly to track progress. They’re designed to be year-long goals, but if schools need to change their goals or move on to address other issues, district officials will help them do that.

“Achieving the high quality we’re looking for is going to take certain time for some folks and longer for others,” Browne said. “It is a combination of how do we implement innovation plans, but also how do we maximize performance.”


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.