Aurora Central High narrows principal search

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AURORA | The final two candidates vying to become the permanent principal at Aurora Central High School next school year made their case to students, teachers and community members April 14 during a candidate forum held at the school in northwest Aurora.

Following a months-long interview process with APS administrators, the two candidates — Gerardo De La Garza and Eric Rowe — outlined their plans and ideas for Central in starkly different terms. De La Garza painted himself as an insider with knowledge of the system, while Rowe referenced his status as a newcomer to the city and the state.

De La Garza, the first of the two candidates to address a roomful of about 40 parents and educators, highlighted his experience with Aurora Public Schools in his pitch for Central’s top job. The former principal at North Middle School, De La Garza has acted as the interim principal at Central since the beginning of the current school year.

“I’m already here, I’m in that office, I have my keys, I know what’s been going on in this building,” he said. “I’m ready to go.”

In a roughly 20-minute presentation, De La Garza pointed to several portions of the school’s partially approved innovation plan, including a need for drastic changes in school culture for both students and teachers.

“I get it — there’s a lot of hurt in this building right now,” he said. “The culture and climate is something that we definitely have to address in order to make a difference with our students. That’s going to be priority number one.”

Central’s lengthy innovation plan calls for waivers from state and district mandates that would allow the school to operate using one-year teacher contracts, hire non-licensed teachers and run off of an alternative school calendar. De La Garza repeatedly emphasized his hand in developing the school’s plan.

“I’ve been part of the work creating the innovation plan, now it’s time to put it into action,” he said.

In opposition to De La Garza’s stump, Rowe underscored his position as an Aurora outsider. Originally from Missouri, Rowe is currently a Principal Resident at P.R.E.P. Academy, an alternative school in the Denver Public Schools district in Denver’s Skyland neighborhood.

“I’m not from Colorado, I’m not from Aurora … so I’ve got a learning curve,” he said.

In a roughly 10-minute presentation, Rowe pointed to several prongs of the innovation plan he would aim to implement at Central, paying particular attention to the increased need for vocational tracks of study. He highlighted a system that would place some Central students in career tracks starting sophomore year, continue with paid internship and work study opportunities for upperclassmen, and culminate with a required senior capstone project.

“Thinking about a pathway for sophomores, what does that pathway look like? It could be language and cultures — taking advantage of the diversity we have here at Aurora Central — it could be STEM,  it could be social media and communications, biomedical sciences or maybe an innovation pathway,” Rowe said. “Maybe they want a different track to go on, something that they develop in concert with a professional, an educator or teacher or an external partner about what they want to study for the final two years.”

Rowe detailed his schooling at Brown University in Rhode Island, where he studied education in the mid-1990s. Upon closing his presentation, he asked attendees several questions about what qualities they would like to see in the next Central principal and what changes they would like to see in the school’s administration.

Both De La Garza and Rowe also spoke to a panel of six students who were chosen by Central staffers to participate in the hiring process. The student panel spoke with all of the candidates who were considered for the Central position.

Savion Harris, a junior at Central, said that he is primarily looking for stability in the Central administration.

“We’re so used to the inconsistent administration,” Harris said. “There’s a new principal every year, and we all expect it.”

There have been three principals at Central in the past five years, a number that includes De La Garza in his current transitional role, according to APS Spokeswoman Patti Moon. She said that the district met with a total of 12 candidates during the hiring process.

The principal search at Central comes as the school scrambles to enact a slew of procedural changes. Central, which is currently in the last year of the state’s five-year accountability clock for school performance, is in the process of gaining innovation status, which is tied to a 2008 state law and would grant the school additional freedoms in the way it sets up calendars, retention policies, curriculum and other hierarchical structures.

Both the APS Board of Education and a majority of Central teachers signed off on the school’s innovation plan earlier this spring. The school now stands poised to clear the final hurdle in the innovation process by gaining approval from the state board of education in May.

Moon said that the district plans to make a final decision on the new Central principal by the end of the month.