Parents mobilize to save Aurora Public Schools

Only five out of ten students will graduate in the Aurora Public Schools. Of those, two will go on to college; one will need to take remedial classes.

Wednesday a coalition of parents, non-profits and foundations released a 28-page report, “If Not Now: Transforming Aurora Public Schools From Failing to Great.” The message to the district: Shape up.

“For too long, Aurora has been left out of conversations about improving public education,” the report states. “Instead, people have focused their attention on the improvement efforts in Denver Public Schools, ignoring the challenges and growing number of students on the city’s margins.”

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The report calls out Aurora’s achievement gap, low graduation rates, lagging workforce readiness and failure to keep teaching methods in line with rapidly changing demographics.

Diana Castro, whose daughter attends preschool in Aurora, joined the advocacy group RISE Colorado when she realized the low quality of education her daughter would get in the district.

“I don’t want my daughter to be one of these statistics,” she said, citing the report.

RISE Colorado is a community organization trying to end inequity in education. The group brought this coalition together. In total, 17 different groups worked on the report, including such education reformers such as A+ Denver, Colorado Succeeds and Education Reform Now.

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A+ Denver headed up the research. Using data from the district and the state department of education, researchers found Aurora students’ average TCAP and ACT scores consistently fall below state averages. English language learners and special needs students are underperforming compared to their peers in the rest of the state, and the achievement gap between low-income and more affluent students has widened over time.

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Researchers also conducted a “district climate” survey that found that even though the district has tamped down on the number of suspensions, expulsions, and referrals to law enforcement, just under half the students don’t feel safe at school.

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This is the first time A+ Denver has worked in Aurora.

CEO Van Schoales said the information contained in the report is nothing new, but this is the first time it can all be found in in one place. “A lot of people just haven’t seen the data. So this is kind of a wake-up call.”

Researchers looked outside the district for model schools. Denver Public Schools is used for comparison most often in the report because of similarity and familiarity, but there are plenty of examples of underachieving schools that have turned around across the country.

“New York City and New Orleans and Los Angeles — they made progress because they faced their harsh realities,” Schoales said. “That’s the first step.”

Screenshot from 2015-10-07 18:02:16APS, on its part, also released a report just two days prior to If Not Now.

“We recognize that all APS staff members have the responsibility to meet the academic needs of every student we serve,” reads the introduction of the report simply titled “Education Reform in APS.” “For many years, however, we have not been able to deliver or support the needs of all students.”

The Colorado Department of Education pegged APS as a “priority improvement” district in 2010, ranking it among the lowest performers in the state. Three years later, the Aurora Public Schools Board of Education appointed Rico Munn as superintendent. His task was straightforward: Transform this failing district into a success. But executing that task, obviously, has been anything but straightforward.

While the district’s new report doesn’t pretend to offer a comprehensive view of all the work taking place, “it is intended to provide our readers with context and greater understanding of the reform strategies taking place in APS.”

Munn said the timing of the district’s report and the coalition’s report was incidental. “This isn’t West Side Story,” he told The Colorado Independent with a laugh. That being said, Munn doesn’t think “If Not Now” gives an accurate portrayal of the district.

“If you read their report, you might say, ‘Gee, why doesn’t the district do this?’” he said. “The truth is, we already are.”

The district’s report opens with a section titled “The Challenges,”  highlighting what the district is proud of before moving into the less savory stuff. Those points of pride include Aurora Quest K-8, a magnet school for gifted and talented students, a first-of-its-kind assessment system for students to excel outside the traditional academic setting, and the Aurora Welcome Center, housed in a building physically connected to the district’s central admissions office, which provides social services to immigrant and refugee students.

Hedrine Temajong, who moved from Cameroon to Aurora eight years ago, has three kids in the district. She speaks seven different languages, so sometimes volunteers her time to go translate in school for her friends. APS serves non-native English speakers “to a certain degree,” she said. “But it’s not enough.”

Families in the diverse district speak English, Spanish, Nepali, Somali, Butanese and Bengali, among others. The district’s website says students hail from more than 130 countries and speak more than 133 different languages.

Munn emphasized that the district is already making moves to serve these communities. “We’ve invested heavily in family liaisons, community liaisons and community navigators [who are] folks from community organizations who help us understand cultures and backgrounds we’re not familiar with.”

Munn does agree with Temajong, however, that “we can always get better, always improve.”

And while the district’s report is not a response to the coalition’s, it is a response to a poll the district recently conducted. Asked generally about the quality of Aurora Public Schools, just under half responded positively. 34 percent had a negative view of the district, and 20 percent didn’t know. Asked specifically about new Superintendent Rico Munn’s performance, 42 percent of respondents had a positive view, 20 percent negative and 38 percent didn’t know.

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Important to note is that the sample surveyed was a group of 500 likely voters, 8 percent of whom were Spanish speakers. So it may not be a wholly representative sample.

About the poll, Munn said: “They told us that they didn’t know enough about what our reform and innovation strategies looked like. So we wanted to make sure there’s a document to explain that work.”

Read the full report here.

“This is the first time they used the word ‘reform,” A+ CEO Van Schoales said. “For the first time, there’s some data, objectives and a timeline.”

Photo credit: Tim Parkinson, Creative Commons, Flickr