EXIT INTERVIEW: Outgoing Aurora principal says some APS performance schools overlooked

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AURORA | This summer marks the end of an era at Tollgate Elementary School.

After three decades spent working in Aurora Public Schools, Laurie Godwin, the principal at Tollgate for the past 18 years, submitted her resignation June 15.

Laurie Godwin is the outgoing principal of Tollgate Elementary School on Wednesday June 22, 2016. Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel“I always thought I would end my career with Aurora Public Schools, but different opportunities come up,” she said. “It’s very bittersweet.”

Godwin started her professional career as a fourth-grade teacher at Park Lane Elementary in 1986 and worked at Kenton Elementary and Boston P-8 before landing at Tollgate. Later this summer, Godwin will leave APS to begin her tenure as the head of SOAR Charter School, a Denver Public Schools charter founded in 2010 and located in Green Valley Ranch.

But before leaving, Godwin expressed several parting concerns with the APS Board of Education at a regularly scheduled school board meeting earlier this month.

At the crux of Godwin’s sentiments was the pressure put on the district’s few high-performing schools, despite having the same resources as schools that are struggling to meet minimum test score requirements.

“It’s just this idea of, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing,’ but the resources keep getting pulled,” she said.

That lack of support has frustrated Godwin, especially as the district has grappled with ways to right the course of several struggling schools. Both the local school board and the state education board signed off on a new APS innovation zone, set to provide wide-ranging freedoms for five schools in northwest Aurora, earlier this spring. (Tollgate has also operated on innovation status for the past three years.)

“There’s so much focus on turnaround or failing schools, but I think (the board) is missing an opportunity to highlight those performance schools,” Godwin said. “I wanted the board to hear the perspective from a sitting principal who has always been on performance (status) in Aurora, because there are few of us who can claim that.”

Tied to a 2009 state law intended to improve educational accountability, every school in the state must operate on a framework based on school performance. The “performance plan” is the highest rating on the four-point scale, according to the Colorado Department of Education website.

On top of slightly above-average test scores, Tollgate’s performance in several categories assessed by the state earned the school its second consecutive designation as a center of excellence last year. The designation was granted to 32 schools across the state that boasted high growth and a student body that was at least 75-percent at-risk, according to the CDE. Tollgate joined five other APS schools on last year’s list.

But achieving that performance status was difficult for Godwin and her team at Tollgate, a school faced with challenges seen across APS: High transiency rates, high numbers of English-language learners and a significant number of students who qualify for free and/or reduced lunch. As of January, Tollgate had 550 students in grades K-5, about 44 percent of whom were English-language learners and 80.5 percent qualified for free or reduced lunch, according to the school’s website.

That last statistic proved to be a crucial one last school year, as the school dipped about two percent below the federally mandated threshold that qualifies schools for Title I status and increased funding. At least 70 percent of the students at a Title I school must qualify for free lunch to receive additional funding. At Tollgate last year, 68 percent of students qualified, meaning the school didn’t get the extra $350,000 it had in the previous years when it had qualified for Title I status, according to Godwin.

“That’s a huge resource,” she said. “And because we’re a performance school, we couldn’t apply for any of the other funds because our school was not at-risk.”on Wednesday June 22, 2016 at Tollgate Elementary School. Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel

Godwin said that those funding difficulties, paired with a general shift in attitude have posed a challenge in recent years.

“As our district has gotten bigger, there’s been more of a focus on systems, structure and management, not as much on the relationships, the people who do the work and the deep understanding of instruction that I grew up with,” she said. “The focus on testing vs. the focus on teaching and learning, I think, is out of balance.”

She added that blueprints for success could be closer than some administrators may think.

“My hope was that the board might talk to those people in those performance schools and find out what’s working, so that Aurora as a district could learn, get better and improve the lives of all kids in our district,” she said. “We need to look at what has been successful.”