State school ratings show slight, steady improvement for APS

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Students walk through the halls during a passing period on at Aurora Central High School.
File Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel

AURORA | Preliminary school ratings from the Colorado Department of Education showed slight progress as a whole in Aurora Public Schools during the 2018-2019 school year.

The results continue a slow but steady improvement in student test scores across the district. Still, state officials reported extremely low ratings at Aurora Central High School and a handful of other schools, which has stymied local educators and district officials for years and prompted state action.

“The big picture is that the district continues to improve,” APS Superintendent Rico Munn said of the state ratings. “This is another example of that.”

The annual state ratings take into account student test scores, graduation rates, dropout rates and matriculation in higher education classes. They can have major implications for how schools are run — and by whom.

For the third year in a row, the district as a whole was rated “improvement”, the second-highest rating category.

APS school board member Dan Jorgensen did not respond to a request for comment. Jorgensen is also an education department employee who works on the ratings.

Districts and schools that drop in state ratings — or fail to improve enough — for five years in a row can face a takeover from the state education department. The state Board of Education can then decide to hand over schools to private management firms, close the schools or convert them to semi-autonomous charter schools.

From 2011 through 2016, APS failed to improve enough on the state’s ratings, but eventually improved enough to dodge a complete state takeover.

This year, only two individual schools in APS — North Middle School and Gateway High School — failed to improve enough in five years and warranted state action.

But Munn and the APS school board expected the results.

Last year, the school board allowed Munn to ask the state board of education to preemptively hand over control of curriculum and instruction of North to MGT Consulting, a for-profit education firm, for $1.2 million over five years. APS also contracted Communities in Schools to work on student mental health and culture at Gateway High School for about $400,000 over four years.

MGT also won a near $9-million contract to take over nearby Adams 14 district in Commerce City. That district lost its autonomy after failing to improve enough in state ratings. The state school board handed over control of its more than $150 million in district spending, almost all state and federal dollars, to the Florida-based firm, the Sentinel reported in June.

Munn said the anticipated ratings validated his recommendation that the external management organizations be brought in early.

External management could have been the fate for Virginia Court Elementary School as well this year, Munn said, but the district expected the school’s test scores to improve enough this year. The district was right: the elementary school made a sizable leap in its ratings.

Munn also noted that two schools received the lowest rating from the state, “turnaround”, except for Gateway and Hinkley high schools.

But that’s a result of not enough students taking tests, which automatically downgrades the schools’ scores. Districts can appeal the ratings this fall to the education department. Munn expects to appeal those two schools’ assessments.

However, a low quality rating still plagues Aurora Central High School.

The school of about 2,200 students has not improved enough from low ratings for nine years. It’s one of five district schools enjoying relaxed rules to spur better results.

District spokesman Corey Christiansen said there are signs of improvement at Central, however, and cited the school’s steadily increasing attendance rate.

Although there’s a lot riding on the state test scores — from parents’ perception of how well teachers are doing their jobs, to the state intervening in struggling schools and districts — Munn said they are just a piece of the puzzle.

“Test scores and assessments are one indicator of the success of a child. A part of that is they need a certain level of academic success,” he said.

But he added: “They need to be healthy, they need to be mentally strong and have good community support.”