Thursday, October 12, 2017

Open letter to candidates for the Board of Education for Aurora Public Schools

TO: All those running to serve on the Board of Education for Aurora Public Schools

FROM: Peter Huidekoper, Jr. – Oct. 10, 2017

ASSIGNMENT – In a letter of 2,000 words or less, what would you want to tell prospective candidates for the Board of Education of Aurora Public Schools?

First, THANK YOU for your willingness to take on such a tremendous responsibility, especially as you will be paid so handsomely (NOT!) for carrying such a burden.  So many many hours—are you sure you’re ready for this? – to do the job well. We must, sincerely, thank you for choosing to make such a commitment.

Second, it was encouraging to read in your answers to the Chalkbeat Colorado survey comments like: “When I am elected, I won’t be afraid to ask tough questions”; “… changing the current environment will require board members with the fortitude and courage to ask questions”; “The Board’s role in transformative change is to ask important questions, keep expectations high, hold people accountable….”

How great if you can bring that spirit to the board. I trust it will mean you can see through articles in the press that jar with reality. As in recent stories suggesting Aurora Public Schools is on the upswing: “Upward movement”; “excited about our momentum”; “making a comeback.” (Details in Addendum A—remember, under 2,000 words!)

“Overall, state officials in August raised the APS accountability rating to ‘Improvement,’ up from the bottom two categories of performance.”[i]
Improvements to Aurora’s state test scores and its high school graduation rate helped move the district’s rating up.”[ii]

(Later I will look at the seeming contradiction of being a school on Performance, but having unsatisfactory academic achievement, and will raise questions about the “higher” graduation rates.) 

This, it must be said, is also true (bold mine):
… among the state’s ten largest school districts, Aurora continued to post the lowest scores. For example, only 25 percent of fourth graders in the 41,000-student district met the state’s expectations on the English test. (Chalkbeat Colorado’s article on the release of PARCC scores.[iii])
And, I would add, less than 13 percent of the district’s middle school students met the state’s expectations on the Math test.

Perhaps your most difficult task

I trust new board members will be skeptical of overstatement and spin and lack of detail about student performance when district personnel provide updates.  I examine here – as a useful example – the presentation by the district’s Office of Autonomous Schools at a recent board meeting.

My hope is that you will understand the district and staff, as conscientious as they might be in presenting their reports, do not always convey the full story.  It may not be deliberate; I simply say, having visited at least two board meetings each year since 2012, the tendency is to stress the positive. As a result, I have seen board members caught off guard when the Colorado Department of Education or external reports present them with unwelcome facts.[iv] It will be your responsibility, in my view—perhaps your most difficult task—to ask the hard questions to ensure that you and your fellow board members, and the public, obtain essential information.

APS Board of Education Meeting - Sept. 19, 2017

Elementary Schools

Staff presented a 16-17 Performance Summary of the five schools in the Innovation Zone, one of the district’s key initiatives. It highlighted in green the Growth scores of 50 or above on the English test; but the slide also revealed that Growth scores in Math declined at the three schools serving grades 3-5 and fell under 50 at all five Innovation Schools.[v]  As I am sure you know, when achievement scores are exceptionally low—as is the case for these schools—growth must exceed 60 to see meaningful progress. 

Staff then gave 10 more power point slides listing the “innovative initiatives,” telling us—three times no less, “All Year 1 Initiatives have been accomplished.” But not one word about achievement results at the five schools. “Specific School Updates” stated:
  •                 ACHS - Revised Leadership Structure
  •                  Boston P-8 - Received $10,000 worth of Kindles from Amazon
  •                 Crawford Elementary - Has completed more than 80 teacher observations so far

I hope new board members will put a stop to this fluff and ask: How well are the students doing? 

Superintendent Rico Munn’s summary of the meetings spoke of “a presentation about the program implementation and assessment data from the five schools that are part of the Zone.”[vi]  I see no “assessment data,” nothing to indicate this effort has produced significant improvement in achievement.  I offer some 2017 PARCC results in Addendum B.  The new board should insist on more useful information.

**

District staff also showed a graph: Accountability Clock Summary.  It listed 11 schools that, in 2017, “have moved off the Accountability Clock (according to preliminary ratings only).  Good news, sort of. (More on that list in a moment.)  Two slides on CORE Progress Update, all upbeat: “Significant Improvement…”; Schools coming “off the clock”; “Revised Calendar providing more instructional time and teacher & leader training.”

However, APS says it begins 2017-18 with 14 schools on Priority Improvement or Turnaround, in part because, as one graph showed, six new schools went “on the clock in 2017.”   I count 13 (APS Online School’s rating is uncertain, “Pending AEC Framework”) and list them in Addendum C.  The new board will want to ask about their progress.

Yes, fewer schools on the clock, but let’s not miss the key point here: NO DISTRICT IN COLORADO HAS MORE schools on Priority Improvement or Turnaround than Aurora (excludes Alternative Education Campuses).  APS: 13; Denver: 12.  Please note: DPS had close to 200 schools last year compared to 70 or so in Aurora.  (See Addendum D for a list of districts with five or more schools “on the clock.”)


The state now gives schools a PERFORMANCE rating when achievement is unsatisfactory

The state’s preliminary ratings find it possible to place schools that had been on Priority Improvement the year before, Aurora schools like Sable, Wheeling, Sixth, and Laredo Elementary, on Performance.  I trust new board members see the paradox – or worse – when they go to the district’s new website. We can click on each school and get a snapshot of its data. For these four schools, we see:

Achievement – Does Not Meet

Growth – Meets

Current Status - Performance

Yes, Does Not Meet.  I trust a new school board will be skeptical of just how appropriate it is that the district has come off the accountability clock.  Not that APS is to blame; the fault lies in the state’s accountability algorithm that gives growth (60%) much more weight than achievement (40%).[vii]  And yet district leaders and school board members will be blamed, quite rightly, if they fail to see what being on Performance does not reveal.  I provide the troubling PARCC data at these four schools in Addendum E.


Middle Schools

I trust future board members will not overlook (as I do in this letter) the struggles of so many of the district’s middle schools.  I offer here a simple check on their performance in Addendum F.  If the K-8 system cannot raise overall performance, the district’s high schools will continue to face the huge challenge of meeting the needs of 9th graders who arrive well below grade level.


High Schools

At the board meeting staff put up a chart showing Aurora Central High School (ACHS) had improved its growth score in English by 29 points.  A close look also showed that the 2016 growth score for Aurora Central was 28.  That 28 in growth was the lowest score on growth in ELA (along with South Middle) out of all 70 schools in the district that year. 

I trust the new board will give growth its proper due, but that you will always be sure to ask about achievement.  For even with such “improvement,” a closer look at the results for 9th graders at ACHS shows how few are meeting expectations.

                                        ACHS – ELA – 9th grade – improvement from 2016, but …


% meeting or exceeding expectations


2016
2017
ACHS
6.6%
11.8%
District
22.8%
22.5%
State
37.2%
36.2%

Given the school’s performance the previous year, then, the growth in in 2016-17 is underwhelming. Board members might observe the impressive growth scores at several SMALLER high schools in 2017—better scores to start 2016-17, and even better by the end.

           Growth Percentile – ELA – 9th grade - 2016 to 2017
William Smith High School
89
Aurora West
87
Vanguard Classical
82
Lotus Schools of Excellence
74

And in asking about achievement, you will surely want to ask what is happening at our three troubled BIG high schools. Some would like to say ACHS is unique in its struggles, but Gateway and Hinkley—with good reason—are now the accountability clock too.  Addendum G shows how the BIG THREE are doing, in contrast to the much higher performance at three SMALLER high schools.  

I trust future school board members are willing to ask a basic question as: does school size matter?  Especially in our community—with so many immigrants, so much mobility, where it can matter all that much more to have schools become community where each student is known well by the adults in the building?  The next board should realize that questions about the “right” size of a school is not the same as asking: how many students can this building hold?[viii]  It appears that this has prevented ACHS from exploring a more fundamental restructuring. Many of us believe we give educators and students a much greater chance of success, of building good relationships and a strong community, in a smaller setting.

Graduating – but not college ready

A final point related to the woeful performance of the district’s big three high schools.  Yes, the district’s graduation rate improved from 59% in 2015 to 65% in 2016, but let’s be clear: as Chalkbeat Colorado’s report showed, of the 10 largest districts in Colorado, APS had the lowest graduation rate.

You would be correct to say: wait, we don’t care about comparisons with Boulder and Cherry Creek.  What about comparisons with districts enrolling a similarly high percentage of students qualifying for Free and Reduced Lunch? I offer that here - Addendum H.  It should raise the question: So is 65% good news? (I also present the graduation rates at the six high schools referred to above—big and small.)

What is more, a responsible board will find graduation rates suspect when they see the alarming percentage of recent APS graduates who found they were not ready to take college level classes.  For Aurora Central graduates in 2015, 70.3% required remedial classes upon entering college or universities in-state – 52 out of 74 students.  For Gateway, 61.8% - 47 out of 76.  Among Colorado districts with over 200 students graduating and going, Aurora’s remediation rate was the 4th highest. 

                   Remediation rate[ix] 
           2015 high school graduates
Pueblo 60
54.9
Brighton
54
Greeley 6
53.1
Aurora
48.7
Pueblo 60
48.6
Falcon
47
Denver
45.4
STATE of COLORADO
36.1

I trust such data will encourage the new board to ask about the value of a high school degree when so many recent graduates find they are compelled to take remedial classes. What, exactly, does that diploma from an Aurora high school mean?

To all who win and serve on the board, it’s just one more essential question you will want to ask!

My best wishes to you.

(1,865 words.)



ADDENDA


Addendum A - “our momentum,” “right direction,” “making a comeback”

1.            Aurora Public Schools improves enough to dodge state action, mixed results elsewhere in new preliminary state ratings - Chalkbeat Colorado, Yesenia Robles, Aug. 30, 2017

   Aurora Public Schools has improved enough to pull itself off the state’s watchlist for persistent low performance, according to preliminary state ratings made public Wednesday. The district of about 40,000 students was staring at state intervention if it didn’t move the needle enough. …. The district saved itself by earning a state rating of “improvement,” no longer in the bottom two categories of performance.
   “We’re excited about our momentum,” Superintendent Rico Munn said. “We are moving in the right direction.”

2.     “Aurora Public Schools is making a comeback of sorts - and this pilot school is leading the charge” - Aurora school hatching ideas that brighten students’ futures.  The Denver Post, Monte Whaley, Sept. 27, 2017.[x]

   William Smith’s approach is earning it national praise and academic success in Aurora Public Schools, a 39,000-student district that has been targeted by the state for persistently low test scores and that was considered for academic intervention.
    But the district may be launching a comeback of sorts. APS did well enough in the latest round of state tests to leave the state’s watch list of consistently troubled districts.
    Leading the rally was William Smith, which had the state’s fourth-highest median growth percentile on the statewide English test. In other words, William Smith students, on average, showed greater improvements than 89 percent of Colorado students who scored similarly to them the previous year.
    Principal David Roll said he’s proud of his students’ performance — and he knows the school is being watched closely by district and state officials.
    They want to see whether William Smith’s methods can be used at larger, more conventional high schools. William Smith has an enrollment of about 320 students. A majority of the student body — about 75 percent — qualifies for free or reduced-price lunches. That compares with about 68 percent of students districtwide.
**
    APS Superintendent Rico Munn said he is happy with the upward movement, but a lot of work still needs to be done. “This is merely a mile marker in a marathon,” he said, “and we will continue to build on our momentum.”


Addendum B

                                               2017 – PARCC/CMAS - CRAWFORD

% meeting or exceeding expectations - ELA


Crawford
District
State
4.2
20.4
40.1
Grade 4
13.7
25.1
44.1
Grade 5
11.6
26.0
46.3
% meeting or exceeding expectations - MATH
Grade 3
9.5
20.9
40.0
Grade 4
5.3
15.6
34.0
Grade 5
5.8
15.0
33.6

NOTE: In APS, where average scores in grades 3-5 are 20 percentage points behind the state average, Crawford’s scores are 10-15 percentage points even lower than the district average.

Boston and Paris did not have enough students taking the test in some grades to allow for public reporting, but what scores are available are as troubling as Crawford’s scores.

                                               2017 – PARCC/CMAS - BOSTON

% meeting or exceeding expectations - ELA

Boston
District
State
Grade 3
10.4
20.4
40.1
Grade 4
*
25.1
44.1
Grade 5
*
26.0
46.3
% meeting or exceeding expectations - MATH
Grade 3
16.3
20.9
40.0
Grade 4
*
15.6
34.0
Grade 5
*
15.0
33.6


                                               2017 – PARCC/CMAS - PARIS

% meeting or exceeding expectations - ELA

Paris
District
State
Grade 3
10.7
20.4
40.1
Grade 4
11.3
25.1
44.1
Grade 5
9.7
26.0
46.3
% meeting or exceeding expectations - MATH
Grade 3
7.1
20.9
40.0
Grade 4
*
15.6
34.0
Grade 5
*
15.0
33.6



Addendum C

APS schools on Priority Improvement or Turnaround. From the state’s Preliminary School Performance Framework—2017.


2017
Rating
2017
Total % pts earned
Jewell Elementary


Priority Improvement
40.7
North Middle
40.6
Mrachek Middle
40.0
Paris Elementary
40.0
Crawford Elementary
39.4
Aurora Hills Middle
38.7
Aurora Central High
34.8
Gateway High
34.8
Virginia Court Elementary
34.4



Century Elementary
Turnaround
33.5
Lynn Knoll Elementary
Turnaround
33.1
Lansing Elementary
Turnaround
33.2
Kenton Elementary
Turnaround
32.5



Addendum D

Districts with high number of schools on Priority Improvement or Turnaround (Preliminary Ratings)


On PI/T*
Enrollment – 2016-17
Aurora Public Schools
13
41,797
Denver Public Schools
12
91,132
Pueblo City 60
11
17,299
Colorado Springs 11
11
27,911
Adams 14
7
7,467
Westminster
6
9,638
Mesa County
5
22,105rr
*unofficial – my tally from studying CDE’s preliminary 2017 ratings[xi]



Addendum E 

  PARCC scores at 4 elementary schools – rated on Performance


% of students meeting expectations - ELA
3
4
5
State
40.1
44.1
46.3
District
20.4
25.1
26.0
Sable
18
17.2
8.2
Wheeling
24.7
17.5
13.2
Sixth
11.0
20.5
16.0
Laredo
18.5
12.6
26.3








% of students meeting expectations - MATH
3
4
5
State
40.0
34.0
33.6
District
20.9
15.6
15.0
Sable
17.9
9.1
5.8
Wheeling
17.9
9.8
*
Sixth
9.6
10.8
6.2
Laredo
17.8
4.5
7.9










*means there were too few students to allow for the release of the data.



Addendum F – APS Middle Schools
PARCC Results*

Average
6
7
8
State
40.6
44.2
43.4
APS
21.0
24.2
30.2




Meeting expectations on PARCC - MATH
Average
6
7
8
State
30.9
25.8
21.0
APS
12.2
12.6
12.5







The state’s -Preliminary School Performance Framework, 2016-17:



2016
Rating
2017
Rating
2017 - Total % pts earned
Year on Accountability Clock
Hinkley
Improvement Plan
Priority Improvement Plan: Decreased due to Participation
44.7%
Year 1
Gateway
Priority Improvement Plan
Priority Improvement
Plan
34.8%
Year 3
Aurora Central
Turnaround Plan
Turnaround Plan: Decreased due to Participation
34.8%
Year 7




2014
Rating
2016
Rating
2017
Rating
2017
Total % pts earned
Performance
Performance
Performance
64.9%
Lotus
Performance
Performance
Performance
57.7%
Aurora West
Performance
Performance
Improvement
52.7%


Size of freshmen class at these six schools – and PARCC results (English)

APS high schools with between 1,700 and 2,200 students in grades 9-12, fall 2016:
# of 9-12
Students*
# of 9th graders*
9th grade - % meeting or exceeding expectations – English**
State
-
-
36.2%
District
-
-
22.5%
Hinkley
2,184
531
15.3%
Gateway
1,718
396
14.8%
Aurora Central
2,209
550
11.8%

High schools with under 400 students in grades 9-12:
2016-17
# of 9-12
Students*
# of 9th graders*
9th grade - % meeting or exceeding expectations – English**
Lotus
232
71
44.0%
William Smith
319
77
42.3%
Aurora West
382
104
41.2%
State
-
-
36.2%
District
-
-
22.5%


Addendum H – Graduation rates - 2016

              10 districts with FRL over 65%*
10 Colorado districts with FRL -> 65%
Graduation Rate*
% FRL students
Harrison 2
79.7%
69%
Greeley 6
77.1%
66%
Weld County RE-8
74.1%
73.6%
Pueblo City 60
73.9%
68.5%
Sheridan
69.1%
90.1%
Denver Public Schools
67.2%
69.1%
Adams 14
65.8%
85.4%
Aurora Public Schools
65.0%
66%
Mapleton
64.6%
70%
Westminster
56.3%
83.2%



State of Colorado
78.9%
42.2%


Graduation - Three big vs. three small Aurora high schools

2016
Graduation Rate*
Aurora Central
48.1%
Gateway
56.5%
Hinkley
71.3%


William Smith
73.5%
Aurora West
77.9%
Lotus
82.2%


APS - District
65.0%
State of Colorado
78.9%

                                                *http://www.cde.state.co.us/cdereval/gradratecurrent




[iv] From AV#129 - Evidence of success from the charter world – smaller high schools:
At the February [2015] school board meeting, an informative presentation by CDE’s Turnaround Office stated what could be severe consequences if current trends continue.  The news appeared to startle some board members: “I think this is a lot to take in,” said board president JulieMarie Shepherd (http://co.chalkbeat.org/2015/02/18/aurora-chief-will-propose-changes-for-struggling-central-high-school/#.VRw-s_nF9qU). Mary Lewis—a member of the school board since 2007, and former board president—grew defensive, as well she might. “It’s — scary isn’t the right word — I’m still looking for the partnership piece,” she said, eyeing the state officials. “I’m looking for [you to say] we’re here to help.”
[vii] In North Carolina, in contrast, grading of elementary and middle schools “is calculated 80 percent from student test scores and 20 percent from student growth,” http://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/education/article177812261.html
[viii] In March of 2015, as the district and board explored options for turnaround efforts at ACHS, Munn advocated for innovation status and said it “would open structural options, including schools within a school, smaller learning communities, or a mix of some autonomous or charter schools.”  http://boe.aurorak12.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/20/2015/04/final03_17_15boeminutes1.pdf.  But it had 2,100 students then.  Last year ACHS enrolled even more students: 2,209. 
[ix]The most recent publication by the Colorado Department of Higher Education. “LEGISLATIVE REPORT ON DEVELOPMENTAL EDUCATION FOR THE HIGH SCHOOL CLASS OF 2015 (published May 2017) -  http://highered.colorado.gov/Publications/Reports/Remedial/FY2016/2016_Remedial_relMay2017.pdf.