State school board recommends Aurora Central hire additional private firm

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AURORA | State education decision-makers decided Thursday to keep struggling Aurora Central High School on a short leash for another year and recommended the school hire an additional private management company to work with teachers.

These most recent initiatives are the latest geared at improving low test scores at Central, which has struggled for years and long been in the state’s sights, but would become moot if Central scores boost enough next year. 

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The State of Colorado’s Board of Education voted Thursday to scrutinize Central again in just one more year to see whether ample improvements have been made. For years, the school has been instituting reforms to improve test scores and a school culture once described as “toxic and chaotic.”

Those reforms have included freeing the school from some state and district rules to spur “innovation,” hiring a private consultant to work on academic systems, improving communication between teachers to support struggling students and regularly deploying staff into neighborhoods to meet with families. 

Board members voted 6-1 in favor of the plan Thursday, with Denver representative Val Flores dissenting. 

The state board agreed with Aurora Public Schools officials’ argument that data points show gains in attendance and graduation rates at the school, but persistent, very low test scores need to be brought up. 

APS Superintendent Rico Munn said he and staff were pleased that the board recognized some strong improvements, “large and small,” made at Central. “There is still significant work that needs to be done to improve student growth and achievement,” he said. “Turnaround work, especially at a comprehensive high school as unique as Aurora Central, takes time.”

The diverse school is in its ninth year on the state’s performance watch framework, formerly dubbed the accountability clock.  

Schools like Central that can’t improve student test scores, growth, graduation rates and other data points enough to break out of low state ratings are subject to a host of reforms including hiring private consultants, conversion to a charter school and even school closure. The reforms at Central have been limited to becoming an innovation school with waivers from state rules similar to charter schools and hiring private contractor Mass Insight. 

Rebecca McClellan, Aurora’s state school board representative, told The Sentinel that she’s impressed by the community outreach conducted by staff and noted improvements in the attendance rate, teacher retention and student behavior. 

“The school culture is improved, according to reports,” she said. “Now we urgently need improvement in academic achievement for Aurora Central’s students, so they can be prepared to make the most of their potential.”

The meeting Thursday between APS officials and the state board is the latest development in a long effort to get Central students up to speed. The school reached its deadline to improve enough and escape state oversight in 2014. 

Students at Central include impoverished and immigrant students that typically fare worse on tests compared to wealthier students. In the 2017-2018 school year, about 60 percent of the some-2,000-student school was learning English as a second language. About three-quarters of students received free or reduced-price lunches, a trusted measure of poverty.

Five years after reaching the end of the state’s accountability clock, academic achievement is still low. 

Students in all categories are not meeting academic baselines compared to other Colorado schools. 

SAT scores — the statewide test for 11th graders — have declined slightly in recent years, according to state data. In 2019, average math and language arts scores landed at 803, compared to the district average of 879 and state average of 1,001. 

Central’s score this year is down from the 2018 score of 830, and the 2017 score, 833. 

The district has touted some improvement. 

According to the district, more Central students are graduating in four years with a regular diploma. The graduation rate there has improved from about 45 percent in 2015 to 70 percent in 2018, according to district data. (Data from 2019 is not yet available, the district said.) That rate also increased for English language learners and students with special needs, according to a school board presentation.

The attendance rate has grown from about 75 percent in 2016 to 80 percent last year, according to state data —which means, on average, 80 percent of students went to most of all of their classes on a given day. But the rate is still below about 92 percent in the whole state last year.