Falcon district sets the model for Aurora’s innovation


AURORA | For nearly four years, a school district about 75 miles south of Aurora has been quietly creating a paradigm for how to successfully leverage state waivers and retool a cluster of ailing schools.

Eight graders, Dayanuri Renteria Menchaca and Sonia Dela Cruz work on their math assignment in Kelly Hutchings' math class on Wednesday March 09, 2016 at Boston K-12. Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora SentinelFalcon School District 49, located roughly 20 miles northeast of Colorado Springs, has been utilizing an innovation model since 2012, which is when administrators there took drastic steps to pursue a slew of state and local waivers intended to buoy several struggling schools — something administrators at Aurora Public Schools are in the process of locally enacting for several schools in ZIP Code 80010.

“For us, innovation has been a successful local solution,” said Pete Hilts, chief education officer for Falcon 49.

Hilts said that since Falcon educators first tabled the prospect of innovation in the spring of 2011, 14 Falcon schools have adopted individualized innovation plans. The first crop of plans were adopted in the spring of 2012, and in the years since, the district has seen positive trends ranging from heightened staff and community input to improved test scores. A three-year review of Remington Elementary School, one of the first schools to adopt an innovation plan in Falcon, outlines escalating test scores in math and reading over the course of the past three to five years.

Those quick markers of innovation success are precisely what administrators at APS are trying to mirror with a quintet of innovation plans for notoriously struggling schools in northwest Aurora. And in recent months, APS staff have been picking Hilts’ brain in an attempt to better understand the success he’s been able to sculpt in Falcon.

“Falcon has done an amazing job of aligning resources, being transparent and accounting for all resources,” said Lisa Escarcega, chief accountability officer for APS. “It’s an amazing process that they’ve gone through. They can certainly give a great deal of insight about what that looks like there and what implementation would look like here.”

Along with APS Superintendent Rico Munn and several other administrators, Escarcega has met and had several discussions with Hilts since last July to learn more about what has worked and what hasn’t in Falcon. Hilts also spoke at a town hall-style community meeting at Aurora Central High School in October.

Escarcega touted many aspects of the Falcon zones, including how several of them are bound together through unifying themes that apply from the secondary to the high school level. Locally, APS is intending to leverage the theme of international leadership for its innovation zone in Aurora.

“We found that those themes are what seem to bring those schools together in a real zone-like feel vs. just having a group of schools that happen to have innovation…we found that very compelling,” Escarcega said. “The other piece out of Falcon that we found very advanced is the way they have their district structured and we have taken a lot of lessons learned from that aspect. They also took three years to roll (the innovation plans) out, which really impressed us. They were very careful.”

Hilts made a number of recommendations to APS officials, including several tied to how the district should pursue waivers. When Falcon began the innovation process several years ago, the district applied for a handful of waivers that were later deemed unsuccessful and irrelevant, according to Hilts. He said that waivers intended to boost autonomy regarding the district calendar and length of the school day wound up causing problems due to nonconformity across the district.

“Having a group of schools that were on a slightly different calendar was really problematic,” Hilts said. “Because teachers teach in one zone, but have children who go to school another zone. That creates a family care and family transportation issue.”

Hilts said that Falcon has also experienced hiccups with another school-specific waiver meant to make it easier for residents and school administrators to rent out school facilities to local clubs and community organizations. That waiver was recently rescinded by a school in the district during a three-year review after it was determined that there was not enough local interest to make the waiver necessary.

“We did not initially filter innovations waiver requests as assertively as we would now,” Hilts said.

There are more than 60 schools across nine districts with innovation status in Colorado, according to Kelly Rosensweet, charter and innovation school support coordinator with the Colorado Department of Education. She said that interest in Innovation has steadily swelled since the option became state law in 2008. The option is intended to grant schools greater autonomy from some state and local regulations by providing waivers linked to curriculum choice, credit disbursement, hiring practices and the length of the school day.

“As a pathway, it’s growing in popularity,” Rosensweet said. “We’ve seen a steady increase in the number of schools approved each year. And now we’re really starting to see schools outside of Denver Public Schools that are interested.”

More than 40 of the schools currently operating with some form of innovation status are in Denver Public Schools. Escarcega said that APS officials have consulted with DPS staff and former teachers from the neighboring district to glean best practices for innovation, specifically surrounding how waiver language has been worded in the past.

The proposed zone for the five schools in north Aurora would be the district’s first state innovation zone.

Pieces of Hilts’ recommendations are beginning to come to light this month as teachers at five schools in northwest aurora take to secret ballots to either approve or deny proposed innovation plans for their schools. The plans, which have been approved by staff at three of the schools, rejected at a fourth, and yet to go to a vote at Aurora Central High School, outline several stipulations that were pursued in Falcon, including one-year teacher contracts and alternative school calendars.

Hilts said that he’s encouraged by the recent votes in Aurora, but that innovation waivers aren’t the sole solution for APS’ perennially under-performing schools.

“From what I see and observe about the way innovation is occurring in Aurora, I am confident it will be part of the solution,” he said. “It’s a technique — not the sole solution — but a mechanism and technique to get the teachers and staff to a particular set of solutions. I’m encouraged by what I see happening already.”

The APS Board of Education will vote on innovation plans for Boston K-8 and Paris and Crawford Elementary Schools at its regular meeting on March 15. Teachers at Aurora Central High School were due to vote on that school’s plan Wednesday after press deadline. Staff at Aurora West College Preparatory Academy rejected that school’s innovation plan last week, but the district is currently analyzing the reason for the opposition to the plan and may pursue a re-vote after changes are made in the coming weeks, according to Munn.