The central issue

Aurora Central parents: Make our school better now

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Sandra Sarabia, the mother of an incoming freshman at Aurora Central, speaks during a town hall meeting Saturday to discuss the future of the academically struggling school.

AURORA — Parents and community activists told Aurora school board members Saturday that the board has waited too long and needs to take drastic action now to improve academically struggling Aurora Central High.

“There is deep, deep pain at this school,” said parent organizer Patty Lawless of Together Colorado. “We can’t wait two years for an innovation plan to start.”

More than 100 parents, students, alumni, teachers, and other community members filled Aurora Central’s cafeteria for a two-hour meeting to discuss the future of the school. Because Aurora Central has been labeled as failing by the state for five years, it faces sanctions that include closing the school or handing it over to a charter school operator.

Superintendent Rico Munn, however, has a different plan. He wants to free Aurora Central and other elementary and middle schools in the Original Aurora neighborhood from district and state policies that he believes hinder student learning. His plan, ACTION Zones, would use the state’s school innovation law to create more flexibility at those schools.

The school board will direct Munn on Tuesday either to put his plan into action, convert Aurora Central into a charter school, or reboot the school with a new administration and teaching staff that would be required to follow existing district policies and state law.

PREVIOUSLY: A closer look at the issues at Aurora Central High School.

There was not a clear preference from the community Saturday on which path the district should take. Instead, parents wondered why the district waited so long to improve the school and what actions it is taking now to improve Aurora Central when the new school year begins in August.

“What guarantees do I have as a parent that my students are going to be successful?” asked Rich Rimpson.

Board members and district officials told the audience that actions have been taken to improve the school. They also acknowledged that those actions haven’t been quick enough.

“We have to take responsibility,” said school board president JulieMarie Shepherd. “But I have to think about moving forward.”

Munn will begin his third year as superintendent of Aurora Public Schools in July. Since he was hired in 2013, he’s spent most of his time redesigning the district’s central office to better support schools.

“We want to be closer to students and their needs,” said John Youngquist, the district’s chief academic officer, explaining the districtwide changes. “We want to be closer to the needs of teachers and the needs of administrators.”

At the same time, a new principal was also hired at Aurora Central and the school was awarded a $1 million grant to improve the school.

Parents wondered how APS officials plan to make Aurora Central safer, how the school was tracking attendance, and what the district was doing to hire teachers who look more like the community, which is mostly Latino and black. Aurora Central also serves a large English language learning population and refugees.

Some parents said they wanted to be involved in their students’ education but were rebuked by administrators.

“Let us be involved in our children’s lives,” said Erika Flores-Rowe.

One of the most heated portions of the meeting was an exchange between school board vice president Cathy Wildman and Jesus Calderon, a recent Aurora Central graduate.

Calderon presented a list of concerns about the school compiled by parents.

“If I were a parent, I wouldn’t let my children go here,” Calderon said. “Why is it that nothing happened during my four years here?”

Widlman responded, “Let me turn this back on you, what did you do during your four years?”

The crowd booed.

“I did my part, I got good grades,” Calderon said.


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.