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With 76% of its schools rated low, Aurora tries to end slide

Ohanian Comment: Stories like this make my teeth hurt. They also make me very angry. Blame the teachers, blame the parents. There is never any mention of the faulty economic system, never any finger of blame pointed at greedy corporate CEOs and shareholders who want their millions on the back of the working poor.

By Berny Morson

Aurora Public Schools are struggling to reverse a steep academic slide that has left the district with one of the highest percentages of poorly performing schools in the Denver Metro area.

Once a district of working-class families, Aurora has seen a rapid influx of poor and non-English-speaking students in the last decade.

"We got caught by being a little bit complacent," says Superintendent Robert Adams. "We saw the demographics coming, didn't get ready for it in time. So now we've been playing catch-up."

It's a long way up.

Thirty five of the district's 47 schools were rated low on school report cards issued Dec. 6 by the Colorado Department of Education. One school received the lowest rating, unsatisfactory. Last year, 28 of 46 schools were rated low, and none were unsatisfactory.

The ratings are computed from scores on statewide student achievement tests.

Aurora, with about 32,000 students, now has a greater percentage of poorly performing schools than Denver. Seventy six percent of Aurora schools were rated low or unsatisfactory this year, compared to 68 percent in Denver.

School problems are increasingly a subject of public concern, says Aurora City Councilman Ryan Frazier. But until recently, many residents have been indifferent. "It's almost as if we put our children on the school bus, and we'll see them at 3:30, at the end of the day," says Frazier.

"I believe we need a renewed call for parents, teachers and leaders of the community all to take ownership in the education of our children. I believe that's what missing," Frazier says.

The school situation was among the top concerns of business leaders at a recent Aurora Chamber of Commerce meeting.

"Education drives industry and commerce," says Dale Mingleton, a banker and Chamber chairman.

Aurora Public Schools have traditionally served a racially integrated, working class part of Aurora. The Cherry Creek Public Schools serve the more affluent neighborhoods on the south side of town.

Mingleton fears newcomers to the community will look for homes only in Cherry Creek, skipping the Aurora Public Schools district entirely.

As recently as 1994, Aurora Public Schools were 60 percent Anglo, with Hispanics making up about 10 percent of enrollment.

The figures were even by 2001, with Anglos and Hispanics at about 35 percent each. Anglo enrollment has since dropped to about 25 percent, while Hispanics grew to about 49 percent.

Black enrollment has held steady throughout the period at between 20 and 25 percent.

Since 1999, students needing help with English rose from 16 percent to 35 percent. Sixty percent of students are eligible for free or reduced lunches, a measure of poverty.

Private grants to Cherry Creek schools came to $34.48 per pupil during the 2003-04 school year, the latest year for which the state education department has audited data. The figure for Aurora Public Schools was $5.63 per pupil.

Cherry Creek last year raised $48.6 million - nearly 18 percent of its operating budget - through voter-approved increases in local property taxes.

Aurora voters have not been asked since 1990 to raise taxes for operating costs, although two bond issues were approved to build or renovate facilities. The school board, based on polls, did not believe voters would approve a tax increase for operating revenue, says Adams, the superintendent.

"I never say people are not supportive. I try to be realistic to say, I understand where these folks live economically," Adams says.

"They just feel squeezed economically," he says.

Adams says the district is working to improve schools with the money on hand. He cites curriculum changes, along with more teacher training and coaching.

Some principals have been replaced. Schools make better use of test data to decide which students need help and how to design lessons, Adams says.

Van Schoales, a vice president with the Colorado Children's Campaign, an education advocacy group, agrees the district has taken steps in recent years to improve learning. But those steps may not be enough, Schoales says.

"I'm not aware of something that's bold and new this year that's any different than what has been going on in the district for the last few years, and the data seems to continue to be flatlining," Schoales says. "So I'm not sure why continuing with what has been done - I'm not confident that there are going to be radical changes."

Mingleton, the Aurora Chamber of Commerce chairman, says teachers still follow strategies that worked when most students were in the middle of the achievement range, not at the bottom of it.

"That doesn't work any more," he says.

Mingleton has children in first and third grades in Aurora's Century Elementary School.

"What I've seen from the school district - it's been more reactive than it is proactive," he says.

Mingleton says business leaders would like to help, but aren't sure how to jump in.

"I don't feel we know exactly where the school district is going," he says. "The big question I have is, are we marching on the same drum, trying to get to the same goal of our students being better educated, or are we marching to two different drums, going two different directions?"

Brenna Isaacs, president of the Aurora Education Association, the teachers union, says teachers feel as if the district's mounting problems have brought them under scrutiny. They don't feel respected as professionals.

She says the district needs to strike a balance between calling for teachers to change their methods and respecting the skills they've acquired through long experience.

"It really helps when teachers feel empowered, they feel the work they are doing is being recognized somewhere, even though the report card doesn't show it perhaps," Isaacs says.

Adams, the superintendent, says he understands why teacher morale is suffering.

"When you work your brains out and you face slow incremental growth and you've done everything ... and then you get slammed with a low (rating), that's demoralizing, because people are working hard," he says.

Adams says the bold initiatives taken by smaller districts are harder to implement in a district the size of Aurora. Slow, incremental progress will succeed in the long run, he says.

Some of the low-performing schools are within a few points of jumping to average, the next highest category, Adams says.

"If everything we're looking at right now - if we can hold that ground ... I would suggest we could see nine to a dozen schools move from low to the average category by this time next year. That's how close many of them are right now."

morsonb@RockyMountainNews.com or 303 892-5209

— Berny Morson
Rocky Mountain News


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