State Board of Education gives green light to APS innovation experiment


AURORA | After more than a year of slogging through various levels of approval, five schools in northwest Aurora will be untethered from a bevy of state and local regulations next school year.

The State Board of Education unanimously voted Wednesday, May 11, to approve innovation plans for a quintet of chronically troubled schools in Aurora Public Schools, marking a step forward in APS Superintendent Rico Munn’s ongoing quest to turn around the district’s most-affected institutions.

“The real work starts now,” Munn said. “We’ve wanted to get this permission and get these waivers … to really make some dramatic differences and provide some new opportunities. Now we have that opportunity and we want to take advantage of that.”

The thumbs up from the State Board was the final hurdle the innovation plans needed to clear before implementation. Throughout the spring, the plans have received stamps of approval from the staff at their corresponding schools and the APS Board of Education, despite some occasional trepidation. Earlier this winter, teachers at Aurora West College Preparatory Academy rejected that school’s plan, citing a lack of detail. After some edits, West staffers later approved the plan.

Munn said that APS will now begin hiring staffers under the new innovation framework. At Aurora Central High School, one of the five local schools that will move forward with innovation waivers, that means hiring new teachers under one-year contracts.

“We can extend those (contracts) and hire people into those roles with the clarification of what the plan is and what they are signing on for,” Munn said.

Among the other prominent changes slated to take place at Aurora Central in the 2016-17 school year: Longer school days, hiring unlicensed teachers and an alternative school calendar.

Central will join Aurora West, Boston K-8, and Paris and Crawford elementary schools in the so-called innovation zone, which is a term used to refer to a cluster of schools with innovation status. Innovation is tied to a 2008 state law that frees qualifying schools from many state and local regulations, including those regarding budgeting, graduation requirements and credit disbursement.

At the regular state board meeting Wednesday, some board members asked further questions regarding Central’s plan, according to a Colorado Department of Education press release.

Munn said that the questions were based in a misunderstanding of what APS was expected to provide the board in its innovation applications. The state’s 2008 law regarding innovation status does not require districts to provide the board with curricular details at this stage in the process.

“It’s a monomer that some people keep putting out there that we don’t have our curriculum or instruction piece … it’s not part of this process,” Munn said.

He said that Central will continue to use its current curriculum at the start of next school year, and administrators will make changes as the innovation plan progresses.

Board members also raised concerns over the fact that Central is currently in the fifth year of the state’s five-year accountability clock. The school will have to take action as prescribed by the state board by June 30, 2017, according to the CDE release.

Munn said that while he appreciates the state board’s endorsement, enacting innovation status alone isn’t what is going to turn the five schools in the innovation zone around.

“We’ve never believed and never made the argument that the innovation zone or innovation status is some magic elixir,” he said. “We believe it’s s structure that allows us to do some things differently. We’re appreciative of the State Board supporting us in that work, but we’re under no delusion that that in and of itself is going to make a difference.”