Introduction

Aurora Public Schools is one of the largest and most diverse school districts in Colorado. We serve more than 40,000 students representing families with longstanding connections to the community and families who are “newcomers” from more than 130 countries. Our community is rich in culture, assets and opportunity.

We recognize that all APS staff members have the responsibility to meet the academic needs of every student we serve. For many years, however, we have not been able to deliver or support the needs of all students. This longstanding failure must come to an end.

Through an extensive community engagement process, a team of our community members plotted a new direction for staff and our students. This community group created our strategic plan APS 2020: Shaping the Future. This plan will create systemic change and improve learning for all students in our district. The “Core Beliefs” the APS community set forth in the strategic plan have served as the launching point for the development of our systematic approach to district and school turnaround. This reform framework, known as Communities Organized to Reach Excellence (CORE), is the district’s platform to provide additional support for our lowest performing schools.

intro-photo1

Why is the CORE framework needed?

In 2010, APS was identified as a “Priority Improvement” school district by the Colorado Department of Education. This rating placed us among the lowest-performing districts in the state. In addition, several of our schools were individually rated as “Priority Improvement” or “Turnaround.” These ratings were indicators of systemic and structural challenges that must be eliminated. More importantly, they were indicators that far too many of our students were being left behind on the path toward success.

 

How is APS creating change that will benefit all students?

In July 2013, the Aurora Public Schools Board of Education appointed Rico Munn3 as Superintendent of Schools and directed him to develop and implement a strategy to address the district’s “Priority Improvement” status and the growing number of schools identified as “Priority Improvement” or “Turnaround” on the state accountability clock. Our superintendent made it clear that the work of district and school turnaround would be complex and require the full commitment of all stakeholders:

“We must meet our students and community where they are and move forward together. Success requires us to adapt our tactics to reach every kid, every day.” R. Munn, July 2013 Memo to the BOE

APS has a vision to be a school district where “Every student shapes a successful future.” To this end, the district has implemented a new strategic plan, APS 2020: Shaping the Future, designed to foster disruptive innovation and move the strategic levers of readiness, talent and flexibility. The strategic plan, in conjunction with a district-wide reform strategy based upon the creation of strong communities of practice, will allow APS to accelerate academic achievement and build upon its core strength as Colorado’s pre-eminent district for students to earn post-secondary workforce credentials.

What are the three phases of education reform in APS?

To better understand APS’ turnaround work, a brief overview of the APS strategic plan is informative. Since 2013, we have worked to implement and accelerate school reform by developing three overlapping phases:

  • First: To prepare for school and district turnaround, our new administration identified areas of culture and capacity needed to implement and accelerate school reform.
     
  • Second: In partnership with our community, we developed a new strategic plan to create disruptive innovation and move the strategic levers of readiness, talent and flexibility. The plan, known as APS 2020: Shaping the Future, will allow us to accelerate academic achievement and build upon our core strength as Colorado’s pre-eminent district for students to earn post-secondary workforce credentials.
     
  • Third: To foster or force the creation of new systems and structures, we adopted a reform framework based on communities of practice. We have named this framework Communities Organized to Reach Excellence or CORE.  

The Challenges

While there is a high level of focus on addressing underachievement in APS, we also have much to be proud of, including:

  • Home to one of the highest performing schools in the state (Aurora Quest K-8, a magnet school for Gifted & Talented students)
  • Colorado leader in awarding students credentials for post-secondary workforce readiness
  • First school district in the country to introduce a P-12 digital badging credential platform for students to demonstrate knowledge and skills within and beyond traditional academic settings
  • One-of-a-kind community-wide partnership to create a “Welcome Center” that assists the growing number of refugee students and families with housing, employment, education and more

 

However, far too many students are not achieving in key performance areas:  

 

Key Performance area

APS average

State average

Graduation rates 55.8% 77.0%
ACT scores 17.0 20.1
3rd grade reading proficiency 46% 72%
Student academic growth 49th percentile 50th percentile
Student engagement (as measured by daily attendance rates) 92.2% n/a
Students feeling safe and secure 40% n/a

 

The scope of the challenges in APS calls for broad, immediate and radical change throughout our school district. Because incremental change will not address the challenges, we must create systemic reform.

The Foundation for Change

APS recognizes that creating systemic change requires the development of a strong foundation  to support the seismic shifts that must occur.  To implement sustainable reform, we have to increase our district and school staff capacity and shift the organizational culture regarding change that will result in significant gains in student achievement outcomes.

Increasing District and School Staff Capacity for Change

We have  identified and taken action on nine comprehensive research-based areas, that are essential for increasing capacity to create meaningful reform that will increase student achievement.

  1. Turnaround Leadership
    • Entered University of Virginia Turnaround Leaders program – March 2015
    • Began Relay Leadership program – April 2015
    • Created Turnaround Leadership Teams at targeted schools – May 2015
  2. Budget Flexibility
    • Implemented Differentiated Support Structures framework  – December 2013
    • Accelerated staffing and budget allocation processes – February 2015
  3. Staff Recruitment, Retention and Non-Retention
    • Implemented principal and assistant principal performance-based selection pool  – January 2015
    • Developed staff retention initiative for targeted high-need school – January 2015
    • Proposed hard to staff schools framework – January 2015
    • Completed organizational analysis of HR systems and practices – April 2015
  4. Charter Authorization
    • Signed MOU for joint charter application review with Charter Schools Institute – June 2013
    • Authorized, opened or expanded five charter schools since 2013
    • Changed charter school authorizing policies – August 2014
    • Expanded charter application opportunities – December 2014
    • Decreased service fees to charter schools – May 2015
  5. Innovation Experience
    • Proposed ACTION Zones - March 2015
    • Initiated framework for the review of proposals for “new schools” – May 2015
  6. Physical Space
    • Transformed Young Parenting Support Program into a mobile service - August 2014
    • Created a shared space agreement to establish the Aurora Welcome Center – January 2015
  7. Philantrhopic Relationships
    • Engaged with the APS Foundation to develop joint strategic objectives – August 2013
    • Created position for Director of External Affairs – September 2013
  8. Community Engagement
    • Developed Community Corps Liaisons program – August 2014
    • Implemented Strong African-American Families program – January 2015
    • Created public-private partnership for Back-to-School Kickoff – August 2015
  9. Turnaround Management
    • Completed third-party District Turnaround Readiness assessment – December 2014
    • Engaged in APS Turnaround “Think Tank” hosted by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – April 2015
    • Contracted with national expert on innovation and turnaround processes – June 2015
    • Developed “Tableau” real-time data management platform – August 2015

APS continues to find and develop opportunities to build staff capacity for implementing a comprehensive reform strategy that will increase the quality of teaching and learning for every student, every day.

Shifting the Organizational Culture Regarding Change and Success

In APS, we believe that the success of our reform strategy requires both people and an organizational culture that are dedicated to the mindset of accelerating achievement. To this end, our leaders have taken multiple strategic steps to shift the organizational culture regarding change to ensure that all stakeholders are focused on the success of every student. Only by doing this will we be able to achieve significant gains in student outcomes.

  • Since 2013, our community team has been building this culture shift as demonstrated by:
    • A new Superintendent
    • A new Chief Academic Officer
    • Introduction of Unified Job Descriptions
    • New P-20 Learning Community leaders who oversee principals
    • New P-20 Learning Community support teams for school, staff and students
    • Reallocation of $6.9 million to a new P-20 alignment
    • Transfer of more than #3 million from administrative budgets to school budgets
    • A new systematic and transparent decision-making process
    • Expansion of the Charter School Liaison position to increase its scope and support
    • New project management processes to ensure full implementation of school improvement plans, state turnaround grants and the strategic plan
    • A new strategic plan - APS 2020: Shaping the Future
    • Implementation of a new building leader recruitment and development process, which was utilized in hiring 18 new school leaders
    • Implementation of district-wide equity training led by national experts
  • We have also shifted the organizational culture for students and families by:
    • Increasing the course load requirement for high school students
    • Creating a group of community liaisons to increase community engagement and involvement at schools and provide services that allow teachers more time on task during the school day
    • Reallocating more than $1.5 million for achievement interventions to better support students

Only by shifting the organizational culture and building strong communities of practice will we create significant gains in student achievement outcomes.

The Path Ahead

Across the nation, school district reform strategies have taken various forms. Districts have implemented “portfolios”16, “open systems”17, top-down, standards-based, “new schools”18 and “small schools”19 strategies, among others. A common theme among these myriad reform strategies is the need to identify a comprehensive approach that draws upon national best practices while also addressing the local educational context. To serve the Aurora community, we have implemented a series of strategies identified collectively as CORE. CORE stands for Communities Organized to Reach Excellence and encompasses three areas:

  • Multiple research-based communities of practice
  • Innovative systems and structures
  • A proactive timeline for addressing schools identified as having significant challenges

In addition to CORE, our strategic plan APS 2020: Shaping the Future helps chart our overall course for systemic change that will ensure the success of all students.

Communities of Practice

Communities of practice allow people or organizations to collaborate, share ideas, solve problems and develop innovative solutions. They can exist in a literal sense or by connecting shared experiences, challenges or opportunities. Communities of practice require a culture of inquiry, evidence and innovation.

In APS, we have created reform-oriented communities of practice by using national research and experts to design new strategies for creating and supporting a strong culture of reform through collaboration. In addition, there is a focus on best practices and innovative approaches for leading, teaching and learning.

New intentional communities of practice in APS include:

  • 5 P-20 Learning Communities
  • 3 Proposed ACTION Zones (state-endorsed innovation zones)
  • 14 Equity Focus schools that focus on culturally-responsive teaching
  • 5 University of Virginia leadership schools
  • 7 Relay leadership schools

Our theory of change is that by changing the culture and capacity of staff and providing ongoing supports for schools, the adults who work the closest with students will have the resources needed to accelerate achievement. Further, when leaders, teachers and learners are connected to strong communities of practice, they are able to identify and build upon successes to rapidly improve the entire school community.

Our approach and commitment in APS to communities of practice creates new systems and structures to increase and optimize success.

Innovative Systems and Structures

Providing schools with new systems and structures is vital if we are to better support students, families and staff. We have developed several innovative approaches to facilitate the reform work.

Examples include the following:

  • Differentiated Support Structures (DSS)
    DSS offer a new way of addressing the organizational risks that impact APS. By prioritizing these risks, we can provide each school with different levels of targeted support. Schools that are identified as universal (blue) schools show fewer organizational risks and have more autonomy. Targeted (green) schools show some organizational risks and can apply for additional district resources with less autonomy. Intensive (orange) schools show a high number of organizational risks and qualify for a higher level of district resources that are managed at the district level with even less autonomy. The DSS risk identification process, request for additional resources and allocation occurs annually to ensure supports are adaptable and timely.
  • ACTION Zones
    To further address achievement, we are designing and will implement one to three “ACTION Zones” over the next five years. An ACTION Zone (Aurora Community-Based Transformation, Innovation and Opportunity Network) will be comprised of three to five schools that have attained state innovation status and share similar interests (e.g., geography, student demographics, and/ or educational approaches). The ACTION Zone concept builds upon prior APS work to develop charter, pilot and district-innovation schools. As a result, the ACTION Zone strategy incorporates community needs, goals and priorities with national research and best practices. The ACTION Zones will create targeted innovations and resources that focus on community needs rather than academic reform trends. They may be used as a turnaround strategy or as a broader innovation strategy. This strategy will provide an adaptable system to better meet the unique needs of our students. ACTION Zones may utilize similar autonomies and practices used by APS charter and pilot schools. To create a collaborative process, school teams will design innovation applications that propose new models for governance, curriculum, staffing, professional learning and other factors that would benefit students and their achievement.
  • CORE Improvement Strategies and Timeline
    Our state accountability structure provides an “accountability clock” that indicates direction that should be taken after a school has been identified as “Priority Improvement” or “Turnaround” for six years. Our CORE schools are provided with a clear and aggressive timeline for implementing key school improvements after one year of being identified by the state accountability system.