Looking ahead

Union-backed candidates prevail in Aurora — and all sides downplay prospect of big immediate change

Union President Bruce Wilcox, far left, addressing four school board candidates: Debbie Gerkin, Kevin Cox, Kyla Armstrong-Romero and Marques Ivey, as they awaited election results Tuesday. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

One day after school board candidates backed by the teachers union swept into power in Aurora, the district superintendent and leaders of charter schools he recruited downplayed potential conflicts and committed to working with the new members.

Union leaders made similar comments Wednesday, expressing optimism that the newly elected members and Superintendent Rico Munn will forge a fruitful relationship.

The four candidates who will make up a majority on the seven-member school board have been critical of charter schools in interviews with Chalkbeat and candidate questionnaires. But in public comments, including during campaign forums, several of the candidates expressed openness to working with some charter schools depending on the circumstances.

That has left some uncertainty about what the election might mean for charter schools, which are a key piece of Munn’s recent reform efforts in Aurora, and the district’s strategies overall.

The newly elected school board members emphasized Tuesday they want to work with the existing leadership and aren’t planning major changes immediately.

Munn told Chalkbeat on Wednesday he needs to hear from the new board before contemplating any shifts to district priorities.

“In our reform strategy we’ve laid out at least nine different strategies that we’ve been implementing across different schools,” Munn said. “Our current board, and I’m sure our new board, may not like every single one of those. But that’s just an ongoing conversation we have to have.”

Put on notice by state education officials in 2010 for low performance, Aurora Public Schools had little choice but to embark on reforms to better serve its diverse population, which has large numbers of black and Latino students, and young refugees fleeing strife around the world.

Munn, hired in 2013, has overseen an approach the district calls “disruptive innovation.” Along with recruiting high-performing charters to the district, Aurora has adopted a new system for hiring meant to strengthen its principal corps, given schools more control over budgets and created an “innovation zone” providing schools within it greater freedom to experiment.

The district’s efforts have attracted interest from private foundations, education reform groups — and a gradually greater investment of attention and money in school board races, a trend that’s nearly a decade old in neighboring Denver.

Two years ago, reform groups from the left and right and a more engaged teachers union sought to influence the Aurora election. The result was split — two incumbents prevailed, and one of two conservative-backed reform candidates won.

Most of this year’s investment from the reform side came from an independent expenditure committee tied to Democrats For Education Reform. The reform community’s two preferred candidates —Miguel In Suk Lovato and Gail Pough — finished fifth and sixth in the race for the four seats. As of the last big campaign finance report deadline, a committee bankrolled by the teachers union had spent even more to help the union-endorsed slate, billed “Aurora’s A-Team.”

Union leadership and the board candidates on the winning slate have expressed concerns about Aurora Public Schools’ decision to close a struggling school and replace it with a charter school, Rocky Mountain Prep. Also coming in for their criticism: Munn’s invitation to DSST, a high performing charter network, to open in Aurora, and his offer to pay for half the cost of a new building.

The DSST deal is expected to be done after the current board votes on the final contract on Nov. 14 — their last meeting before the new board is sworn in.

Bill Kurtz, the CEO of DSST, said Wednesday the charter school network doesn’t have any concerns about working with board members elected as a union-backed slate.

“We’re excited to meet the new school board in Aurora, and excited about our work in Aurora,” Kurtz said. “Like any school board, we will work hard to start to build a strong relationship with the new board to collaborate so we can best serve students in Aurora … Our view of working with the school board in Aurora is no different today than it was yesterday.”

James Cryan, CEO of Rocky Mountain Prep, voiced a similar sentiment.

“I don’t have any concerns at this point,” Cryan said. “We’re proud to be a part of that community.”

Others who support some of Munn’s strategies are urging patience. Tyler Sandberg, a co-founder and senior policy adviser at Ready Colorado, a conservative education reform nonprofit that also invested in the race, said education reform policy discussions are in the early stages in Aurora.

“Charters are only just beginning to demonstrate to the community the quality they can bring,” Sandberg said. “I’m hopeful that the new board members are going to go to the community and realize how empowering some of these charter schools have been for these students. I’m hopeful schools like Rocky Mountain Prep and DSST are going to be able to make a pretty good impression.”

Sandberg also said that reform groups were at a disadvantage against unions which have “built in ground game and funding structure.”

The state teachers union, Colorado Education Association, invested heavily in Aurora after new leadership at the local level began to highlight the concerns of educators including the charter conversion and the DSST invitation, union officials say.

“The community didn’t want to become Denver East,” said Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, a reference to the charter-friendly district next door. “They want to create their own vision of their quality public schools and they want a healthy relationship with the school district, board of education and community.”

Munn has repeatedly expressed a similar message — that Aurora’s school improvement strategies are not a carbon copy of Denver’s and that they are tailored to Aurora’s needs.

Aurora showed enough improvement to pull itself off the state’s watch list for persistent low performance, sparing itself from a state-sanctioned improvement plan. Outside groups, however, including education reform-friendly groups, have complained that the district isn’t doing nearly enough, citing disturbingly low academic proficiency and other troubling statistics.

Although union members and supporters had plenty to celebrate after Tuesday’s election, not all of organizers’ goals were accomplished. Vicky McRoberts, a former union leader who helped work on the Aurora campaign for the teachers union, said Tuesday night that ambitious goals to engage teachers in the campaign fell short.

But she said volunteers who did help campaign were successful in connecting with voters on issues polls showed they cared about — such as increasing career and technical opportunities for students.

Bruce Wilcox, president of the Aurora teacher’s union, said Wednesday that teachers from outside Aurora helped the campaign, as well.

“We also had more teachers than in the past from our own district,” Wilcox said. “A lot of our teachers did more that one event. I think teachers here in the district recognized that this was an important election.”

Wilcox said the union can’t control what the slate of new board members will do, but said teachers and the union just wanted more collaboration with the district, and to feel that their opinion will be heard.

“I don’t anticipate this board to make any sweeping changes,” Wilcox said. “I’m hoping this board can establish a relationship with Mr. Munn and move forward. We’re at a great crossroads. Our long range plans have come to an end. What better way to start that work moving forward.”

blueprint

Shrinking here, expanding there, Aurora district wants to hear your thoughts on how to handle growing pains

A student at Vista Peak in Aurora works on an assignment. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

The Aurora school district faces sharply dropping enrollment in its northwest corner, but anticipates tracts of new homes filled with students to the east in coming years. To help figure out how it should manage its campuses, the district is turning to the public.

The district held its first of four public meetings Wednesday, and has launched an online survey to gather more input. About 20 attendees Wednesday afternoon answered questions about their thoughts on Aurora — an overwhelming majority said it’s diversity that makes the district unique — on the most important thing schools should have — most said good academic programs — and expressed a desire for more science-technology-engineering-and-math programs, as well as dual-language programs.

Then participants talked with moderators from an outside consultant group hired by the district, while district staff and board members floated around listening to conversations.

The district seeks to address challenges explained to the school board last year, posed by declining, and uneven, enrollment.

In the east of the district, development is planned on empty land near E-470 and out to Bennett, and schools may be needed.

In historic, central Aurora, bordering Denver, gentrification is causing one of the district’s fastest drops in enrollment. But because many of those schools were so crowded, and are typically older buildings, the schools may still need building renovations, which would require an investment.

Aurora district officials told the school board they needed a long-term plan that can support the vision of the district when making facilities decisions.

The decisions may also affect how the district works with charter schools. Enrollment numbers show more families are sending their children to charter schools, and the district is asking questions to find out why.

The online survey, translated into the district’s most common 10 languages other than English, includes questions about why parents choose Aurora schools, what kinds of programs the district should expand, and about whether school size should be small or large.

The survey will be online until Sept. 24.

In the next phase of planning, a task force will draw from community input to draft possible “scenarios.” That task force includes one teacher and several officials from the district and other organizations such as the Aurora Chamber of Commerce, the Aurora branch of the NAACP and the Rotary Club of Aurora. The members include high-profile names such as Skip Noe, the former Aurora city manager who is now chief financial officer of Community College of Aurora, and William Stuart, one of the district’s former deputy superintendents.

A second task force of Aurora district officials will create action plans for the different scenarios.

Both groups will meet through December.

The next public meetings where you can provide your input are:

  • Thursday, Sept. 6, 6 p.m.
    Vista PEAK Preparatory, 24500 E. 6th Ave.
  • Saturday, Sept. 15, 10 a.m.
    Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, 10100 E. 13th Ave.
  • Monday, Sept. 17, 6 p.m.
    Mrachek Middle School, 1955 S. Telluride St.

Plus

Aurora school introduces out-of-the-box redesign with more electives, more teacher collaboration

Students at Aurora Hills Middle School work on creating huts in their STEM class. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

With new offerings of elective classes, a full day every week for teachers to train and plan together, and lots of positive feedback already, school leaders at Aurora Hills Middle School are optimistic about their school redesign.

Officials want it to be a win-win-win solution for the struggling school.

When the principal at Aurora Hills Middle School reviewed teacher surveys in the past, one thing stood out: Teachers were unhappy about their schedule.

Although it’s not uncommon for teachers to lament a lack of time for planning or teaching, an audit of Aurora Hills last year showed its teachers had a higher course load than in other district schools, higher-than-average class sizes, and less instructional time.

So, Principal Marcella Garcia jumped at the idea of working with consultant School by Design to redesign her school’s schedule. School by Design’s focus is on providing data about how schools use their time and helping schools find better ways to do things without requiring more staff or money.

“They really did help me to think differently,” Garcia said. “And the effect we can have is huge. We could have continued on, but I don’t know if I would have thought so outside of the box.”

The consultant has been working with all middle schools in the district as well as some high schools, but each school leader can choose what changes to make, and Aurora Hills took an early initiative to make changes.

Under the changes this year, the approximately 850 students at Aurora Hills have a full day every week for special courses like music, health, technology, or STEM.

Students and educators refer to that as their Plus day, and students say it’s the fun part of their week. Some students, like those requiring special education and English language learner services, have access that they wouldn’t have had in the past to take such classes.

While students in one grade level have their Plus day, their teachers spend the full day in training, led by teacher leaders, and in joint planning time.

So far, they’ve been using the time to look at how they grade and to share ideas about teaching. They’ve also said they want to spend time looking at attendance and behavior data, and learning how to teach social and emotional skills throughout the day.

Teachers have mostly responded positively, Assistant Principal John Buch said.

“One teacher shared, during their reflections, that in her years of teaching, she had not had an opportunity before to collaborate with a teammate and go in depth in planning like they did last week,” Buch said. “We also heard, I would say several comments, about the freedom they felt when planning isn’t cut off by a bell.”

Teacher Cynthia Krull signed up last year to help design the teachers’ new time.

“I really truly fell in love with the idea,” Krull said.

This year, she is a Plus teacher planning hands-on projects for students who take her STEM class once a week. Last week seventh-graders were designing a hut that would help them survive a set of given conditions while stranded on an island. As they worked in pairs to mesh their ideas of what a hut should do or what it might look like, while rushing to meet a deadline, the students clearly were relishing the challenge.

“They look forward to coming to that class,” Krull said.

Aurora Public Schools has been working with School by Design since 2017 to find ways to improve middle-school achievement without increasing spending. The consultant team is still working with a number of other Aurora schools this year, but officials said they expect Aurora Hills’ leaders can become in-house experts within the district, phasing out the need for the consultant, and helping other schools who want to keep thinking differently about their use of staff or time.

So far, the district has spent more than $146,000 on the consultant. District officials say the savings outweigh the cost.

At Aurora Hills, for instance, if teachers are able to have their professional development during the regular school day, the school can save on paying teachers for extra time on the clock or paying for substitutes to cover classes.

But there are also benefits that aren’t easy to quantify, such as giving teachers more time to work together. Or giving students more class offerings and more time to learn.

As part of the schedule, teacher teams also get a block period where students are in “flex time” which means two class teachers combine and split their students into groups and together provide extra help for those who might be falling behind, or give students a chance to delve deeper into a topic.

“Time is the most precious resource,” said Jack Shaw, the executive vice president of Schools by Design. “The win in schools is I’m able to get a bundle of benefit without any additional costs.”

This year, the consultant team will provide updated audit information, so that schools can track the impact of any changes they’ve made.

At Aurora Hills, Principal Garcia said she’s giving staff regular surveys to see how the changes are working. She’ll also be tracking staff turnover rates, and student achievement.

The school has received two consecutive years of low ratings from the state. Based on preliminary ratings released this week, Aurora Hills is in its third year of low performance. The school must improve before reaching five years of low state ratings, or risk state sanctions.

The Aurora district’s own plan for dealing with low-rated schools calls for the district to increasingly intervene in schools if ratings lag. District officials would have likely directed changes this year if Aurora Hills hadn’t created a redesign of its own.

School leaders said they are hopeful that the changes they’re rolling out will make a difference.

“We are encouraged,” said Buch. “We are early in the process, but we have a group of teachers and staff and students working pretty relentlessly to change outcomes. We believe that’s the right work.”