On the trail

Aurora school board candidates, at forum, pitch few new ideas to improve schools

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Aurora school board candidates, from left, Monica Colbert, Billie Day, and Mike Donald took questions from parents at a candidate forum Thursday.

AURORA — All seven of the candidates vying for three seats on this close-in suburb’s school board told a crowd of immigrant and refugee parents at a forum on Thursday that the struggling school district needs to do more to prepare students for life after high school.

But not every candidate agreed on how or what role parents should play in that effort.

The top three vote-getters in this election will join four others on the governing board of 42,000- student Aurora Public Schools.

Once sworn in, the new members will need to tackle the district’s grim reality: only one in 10 students is college ready, students and teachers don’t feel safe in their schools and parents lack information necessary to make good choices about their students.

Those were the findings of a blistering report, released earlier this month, produced by several Denver-based education reform advocacy groups and Aurora-based nonprofits, including RISE Colorado.

RISE, a parent advocacy group working in the Original Aurora neighborhood, was the sponsor of Thursday’s forum.

Meet the candidates | Learn where the seven Aurora school board candidates stand on the issues that matter to you here.

Few candidates were able to articulate any specific policy shift they would champion to reverse Aurora’s poor academic performance.

Linda Cerva, a community activist, said she would want the district to invest in more personalized-learning software for students.

Michael Donald, a small business owner, said he wants more teachers to look like Aurora’s mostly Latino and black students.

But as incumbent Dan Jorgensen pointed out, APS officials are already at work on a number of initiatives to boost student learning including those mentioned at the forum. He suggested some patience was needed to see if the district’s current reforms would work.

“We need stability in the district,” Jorgensen said.

All candidates said they supported the district’s new strategic plan, albeit a starting point.

And while most candidates put the onus of driving the district’s improvement on the school board and administration to boost student achievement, incumbent Cathy Wildman told parents in the audience, specifically, needed to step up to help the district.

“Many kids are not in the classroom because parents aren’t supporting them to be there,” she said.

School board candidates Grant Barrett, a small business owner, and Monica Colbert, who works for a foundation, said they believe parents and students need more school choice.

“We need to attract and bring in good high quality charter schools while focusing on student achievement,” Barrett said.

APS has historically been seen as unfriendly to charter schools. However, in the last year, APS has updated a number of policies to make it easier to open up a charter school in the district. But for the time being, APS has no space to offer a charter school, which is unappealing to well-established charter operators that otherwise would need to find their own space.

That could change after the 2016 election. The district is flirting with the idea of asking voters to increase taxes to fund new building needs. All seven school board candidates said they’d favor asking voters for more money.

One parent wondered why APS doesn’t try to replicate the teaching strategies of countries where most of its new refugee and immigrant students come from?

“That sounds like a great idea,” said candidate Billie Day, a retired teacher.

Day went on to say a first step in that direction would be recruiting more parent aids from a variety of international backgrounds.

Knock knock

House call: One struggling Aurora high school has moved parent-teacher conferences to family homes

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

When Aurora Central High School held traditional parent-teacher conference nights, fewer than 75 parents showed up.

This year, by taking the conferences to students’ homes, principal Gerardo De La Garza says the school has already logged more than 400 meetings with parents.

“This is something a lot of our families wanted,” De La Garza said. “We decided we wanted to add home visits as a way to build relationships with our community. The attendance at the traditional conferences was not where we wanted it to be.”

The home visits aren’t meant to reach every single student, though — the school has more than 2,000 enrolled this year. Instead, teams of teachers serving the same grade of students work together to identify students who need additional help or are having some issues. On Fridays, when the school lets out early, teachers are to go out and meet with those families. In some cases, they also schedule visits during other times.

Some parents and students say they weren’t made aware about the change and questioned if it was a good idea, while others welcomed the different approach.

“I felt when we go home that’s kind of our space, so I wasn’t comfortable with it,” said Akolda Redgebol, a senior at Aurora Central. Her family hasn’t had a home visit. “My parents, they thought it was a little odd, too.”

A father of another Aurora Central senior spoke to the school board about the change at a meeting earlier this month.

“There’s been a lot of changes over all these years, but one thing we could always count on was the opportunity to sit down with our child’s teachers during parent teacher conferences,” he said. “I hope this new program works, I really do, but why stop holding parent teacher conference nights at the high school? I haven’t had a single meeting. I haven’t met any of his teachers this year. Also why weren’t the parents told? I got two text messages, an email, and a phone call to let me know about a coffee meeting, but not a single notice about cancelling parent teacher conferences.”

Research examining the value of parent-teacher conferences is limited, but researchers do say that increased parent engagement can help lift student achievement. This year, the struggling Commerce City-based school district of Adams 14 also eliminated traditional parent-teacher conference nights from their calendar as a way to make more use of time. But after significant pushback from parents and teachers, the district announced it will return to the traditional approach next year.

Aurora Central High School is one of five in Aurora Public Schools’ “innovation zone,” one of Superintendent Rico Munn’s signature strategies for turning around struggling schools.

The school reached a limit of low performance ratings from the state and last year was put on a state-ordered improvement plan. That plan allowed the school to press on with its innovation plan, which was approved in 2016 and grants it some autonomy for decisions on its budget, school calendar, and school model.

As part of the school’s engagement with parents, the school in the last few years has hired a family liaison, though there’s been some turnover with that position. The school also hosts monthly parent coffee nights, as has become common across many Aurora schools.

As part of the innovation plan, school and community leaders also included plans to increase home visits.

Home visits have also become popular across many school districts as another way to better connect with families. Often, teachers are taught to use the visit as a time to build relationships, not to discuss academic performance or student behavior issues.

That’s not the case at Aurora Central. Principal De La Garza said it is just about taking the parent-teacher conference to the parent’s home. And teachers have been trained on how to have those conversations, he said.

The innovation plan didn’t mention removing conference nights, however.

De La Garza said that’s because parent-teacher conferences are still an option. If parents want to request a conference, or drop by on Fridays to talk to teachers, they still can.

Those Fridays when students end classes early are also the days teachers are expected to make house calls to contact families.

Teachers are expected to reach a certain number of families each Friday, though school and district staff could not provide that exact number.

Bruce Wilcox, the president of the Aurora teachers union, said that it’s important to better engage families, but that balance is needed so not all of the responsibility is put on teachers who are already busy.

Wilcox said he would also worry about teachers having less access to resources, such as translators, during home meetings.

Maria Chavez, a mother of a freshman at Aurora Central, just had a home visit last week. She learned about the school’s strategy when she was called about setting up the visit.

Another, older daughter, was the interpreter during the home meeting with three teachers.

“For me, it was a nice experience,” Chavez said. “As parents, and even the kids, we feel more trust with the teachers.”

Chavez said she goes to parent-teacher conferences with her elementary-aged daughter, but doesn’t always have time for conferences with her high-school-aged daughter, so the home visit was convenient. Chavez also said she was able to ask questions, and said the teachers were able to answer her concerns.

“Maybe I wouldn’t say this should be how every conference happens,” she said, “but it is a good idea.”

intent to apply

Five groups may present charter applications this year to open in Aurora

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Mauricio Jackson, from left, Raymond Hurley and Adrian Rocha sit in the gym at University Prep charter school before loading on the bus for the ride home.

Five groups have signaled their intent to apply to open a charter school in the Aurora school district.

Based on the letters of interest, which were submitted last week, the five possible applications that Aurora could see this year include one high school, a Denver-grown charter school, and one tied to a national charter management organization.

Groups are required to submit a letter of intent a month before they submit a full application. In Aurora Public Schools, the deadline for applications is March 9.

District officials and two committees would review the applications that are submitted and present a recommendation to the Aurora school board before a vote in June. The earliest schools would open would be fall 2019.

Last year the district received only one application from a charter network that was invited to apply. That was for a DSST school, the high-performing Denver charter network, that is approved to open its first Aurora school in the fall of 2019. Based on this year’s letters of intent, there could be five applications.

Denver-based charters have started to express interest in moving to the suburbs as the low-income families they serve leave the city and as the Denver district slows the pace at which it seeks new schools. The national network KIPP is one charter network looking at possible suburban locations, though KIPP leadership won’t make a decision until this summer about where and didn’t submit a letter of intent to Aurora this round.

Here is a look at each of the five proposed schools with links to their letters of intent: