APS grading turnarounds for its growing number of troubled schools

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AURORA | The Aurora Public School Board is set to approve turnaround plans for 13 struggling schools in the district, including five schools entering the state’s accountability clock for the first time.

Century, Crawford and Lyn Knoll elementary schools, Lansing Elementary Community School and Mrachek Middle School have all moved onto the state’s accountability radar this year after rating as priority improvement status. Because of the designation, the schools must create their own unified improvement plans.

Hinkley High School had been on the accountability clock but after an appeal from APS, the state moved Hinkley from priority improvement to improvement status.

Those schools join Jewell, Kenton, Paris and Virginia Court elementary schools, Aurora Hills Middle School, North Middle School Sciences & Technology Campus, Aurora Central High School and Gateway High School on the accountability clock.

During a Dec. 19 study session, the board was presented with a snapshot of how various schools on the accountability clock went about dissecting performance issues and developing a plan to bring test scores and other metrics to state standards. This process marks the first time the four newly elected board members have had a chance to be a part of the state process.

The board is set to approve the plans by consent during a January meeting in time to submit them to the Colorado Department of Education by a Jan. 16 deadline.

Approved by the state legislature in 2010, the accountability clock was designed to provide additional oversight for chronically under-performing schools. Any school or district that stays on the clock for more than six years is susceptible to a slew of state sanctions, including charter conversion and closure.

Board director Dan Jorgensen said he was glad the schools individual plans were focused on historical implementation of previous action plans across the district and how those played out and affected performance.

The plans developed by the individual schools on the clock have to meet five criteria set by the the state education department, said DJ Loerzel, APS director of Accountability & Data Reporting. The plans must identify challenges and root causes to school performance, create major improvement strategies to address issues and an action plan to implement them, and a system to monitor progress.

Each school undertook an in depth stakeholder engagement process to develop the plans, Loerzel said. While many schools face the same issue, poor test scores in reading, writing and math, the root causes for the under-performance and the pathways forward are not uniform.

For example, at Century Elementary, the school’s under-performance in reading, writing and math scores was tied to a lack of understanding among teachers on how to collect, organize, and analyze student data to adjust teaching practices and a lack of leadership to support teaching development and understanding of Common Core State Standards. The school’s improvement plan included increasing understanding of Common Core standards and increase the use of data to adjust lesson plans.

For East Middle, which was previously on the clock, one of the major issues the school has tried to address is student behavior and creating more engagement in the classrooms. Principal Biaze Houston said the school’s focus on behavior and switching to a restorative justice disciplinary system has paid dividends in the past few years, an issue that was a focus of questions from board member Kyla Armstrong-Romero.

“For sixth and seventh grade we’ve had an absolute dramatic decline in the kind of behaviors we’ve seen in the past, “Houston said. “Eighth grade has been a challenge for us for a variety of reasons. The eighth graders were my first group of students when I got there when my school was on fire. The still have some of the old East in them. Also we’ve had some significant personal issues for eighth grade where we’ve had some gaps” which has caused some problems with constancy.”

Houston said that the focus on having student liaisons and assistant principals for each grade has allowed teachers to focus on proactive work in the classroom instead of having to spend significant class time on disciplinary issues.

Jorgensen has a line of questioning on how schools created ambitious but attainable improvement goals in each plan. He wanted to make sure that schools weren’t just focused on improving one group of students who were close to improving at the expense of students who already were testing at or able the benchmarks set by the state or to the detriment to students who’s test scores were extremely poor.