Remaking Aurora

John Barry flunks retirement

John Barry can’t just quit.

Barry, now in his final week as superintendent of Aurora Public Schools, recently told EdNews Colorado about the July 1 launch of his new consulting firm, VISTA Quest (if that reminds you of the Vista PEAK P-20 campus that Barry likes to talk about, or Aurora’s strategic plan, VISTA 2015 — it’s not a coincidence).

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent John Barry addressed the media at a press conference in August. EdNews file photo.
Aurora Public Schools Superintendent John Barry addressed the media at a press conference in August 2012. <em>EdNews</em> file photo.

His next plan? To tap the nation’s best former and current superintendents, hire them on contract and pair them with new district leaders — especially those coming from outside the word of public education — who need help and support as they get their legs under them. The firm will specifically focus on leadership training, mentoring and crisis management.

It’s no secret that Barry, 61, a retired Air Force general, fits in that category of non-traditional superintendent,  and he is certainly no stranger to crisis.

Barry came to public education after a lengthy and storied military career that included being in the Pentagon on 9/11, working for NASA during the Challenger explosion, investigating the Columbia space shuttle crash in 2003, and doing a stint in private industry. He earned kudos from Arne Duncan, the nation’s top education chief, for his deft handling the aftermath of the Aurora movie theater massacre last summer. By the district’s estimate, 150 former and current Aurora students, parents and staff were in the Century Aurora 16 theater when a heavily-armed lone gunman opened fire, killing 12 and injuring 58 others.

With retirement looming, he decided he wanted to remain in education and not move — ever. In his military career he said he moved 26 times in 30 years.

“I am not going to pack another bag,” he said, during a recent interview in an increasingly tidy office that doubles as an incident command meeting room.

In addition to launching his new enterprise, the former fighter pilot will continue flying for his own entertainment and teaching Aurora kids to fly through ground school. He also may be spotted with fishing rod wading into Colorado’s abundant rivers and streams.

While his mind is on future ventures and erasing any lingering reference to him on files or name plates at APS headquarters so his successor D. Rico Munn can start July 1 with a clean slate, Barry took a little time last week to reflect on his experiences over the past seven years as he ran the 38,000-student Aurora Public Schools.

Barry said when he arrived in Aurora, he found a diverse district with a budget in good shape, well-maintained facilities and staff who “still had fires in their eyes.” But the elephant in the room was student achievement. It was going down.

The origins of VISTA 2010, and VISTA 2015

Barry committed his energy to tackling that issue with military-style precision. He began with an intensive internal process that culminated with his now well-known 90-day listening tour as he laid the groundwork for a strategic plan, known as VISTA 2010, which was condensed into an image-rich 12-page document that was shared with the public.  The goal was to connect the end (vision) with the means (goals and objectives).  One catch phrase, or rather, acronym bandied about in Aurora schools is PACE. That stands for people, achievement, community and environment.

Barry said he prides himself in clarifying the primary district goal of making sure that every APS student graduates with the skills they need to attend college without remediation, and working to achieve that.

“We argue that we had a transformation on the order of magnitude to anything going on in the country,” he said.

While Barry acknowledges that that is a “pretty broad claim,” he cites work over the past seven years to improve and unify the literacy program in APS, revamp and upgrade quarterly assessments to give teachers more real-time data on their students, give teachers more time to meet and strategize on key items, such as the Common Core State Standards, and emphasize student data at regular meetings.

Some 23 more instructional days were added per year, and APS cut its truancy rate by one third by changing some practices and policies. The district cut dropout rates in half, beefed up the five-year graduation rate by 20 percent, rolled out strategic professional development for principals and implemented equity training in a district that boasts 120 languages representing 130 countries and 70 percent of students who qualify for free and reduced price lunch, an indicator of poverty.

Barry gets very excited when talking about the crisis management system the district embraced since he’s been at the helm, and which was put to good use on a day no one in Aurora will ever forget — July 20.

Alton Scales

Alton Scales, who began his post as president of the Community College of Aurora one year ago, said it is nothing short of awe-inspiring to watch Barry carry out a plan under intense deadlines.

“He is a master when it comes to logistics, and being able to stay on point when it comes to messaging,” Scales said.

He said CCA and APS have done a great service to the students of Aurora by working so  hard to create the number one concurrent enrollment system in the state. He described Barry as someone who was engaged and available.

“I have found him to be always accessible,” Scales said. “During our second meeting he gave me his cell phone number. He’s going to missed in that role.”

Amy Nichols, president of the Aurora Education Association, gave Barry high marks for his ability to forge key strategic partnerships that not only enhanced the quality of real-word educational opportunities in the district but netted support for bond and property tax measures in 2008 and 2012. She also gave him big props for his work to get the cutting edge Vista PEAK P-20 campus off the ground.

“One of his greatest accomplishments was his ability to create an external network that really supported Aurora Public Schools,” Nichols said. “Nobody’s perfect, but I give him 100 percent high marks in that regard.”

However, Nichols said the same personality traits that made him a topnotch tw0-star general were the same things that could make collaboration difficult.

“Teachers are taught to question: why, how come…?” Nichols said. “There were times he felt we were questioning him personally.”

Disappointment over TCAP scores

Looking back, a disappointment for Barry was not being able to move the needle more quickly and decisively on student achievement.

Under his tenure, the district failed to reach its goal of a 10 percent increase in TCAP proficiency for all grade levels and all content areas, but the district did report a 3 percentile or greater gain on the 2012 TCAP.  And the number of schools meeting state proficiency averages increased by 2 percent. Since 2006, Aurora schools surpassed the state CSAP/TCAP achievement rates for reading, writing, math and science every year.

“I think I was a little bit more naïve on how fast I could move that needle,” Barry said. “I wanted the hockey stick. I didn’t want the incremental growth.”

Still, he says the financial crisis didn’t help. Seventy million dollars were cut from the district budget over three years. He wonders what he could have done to boost student performance if the budget had remained intact.

He started the second phase of the strategic plan, VISTA 2015, four years into the first since 93 percent of the original goals had been reached. The second phase focused on external vs. internal transformations. He and staff reached out to forge partnerships with government and business entities and create ways for students to get real-world experiences and mentoring in the subjects they care about.

This emphasis on tapping into student interests is also at the core of the district’s Academic and Career Pathways program, which allows students to pursue a track focusing on health sciences, business, arts and communications or STEM all the way through school. Barry said he also feels good about the number of Aurora students earning college credits while still in high school. In fact, one district program allows students to stay in high school for a fifth year in order to earn college credits – if not an associate’s degree.  This past school year, Aurora high school students earned 10,000 college credits.

A key goal for Barry is to align academic development to economic development. One day, he would like to see Colorado have great talent right here so employers no longer have to import workers.

“What our team has done is put the mosaic of institutions together…to do two things –  accelerate student achievement and close the achievement gap,” Barry said. “You can’t do one without the other.”

In March 2010, Barry gave the district a grade of B+ based on the strategic plan in an interview with EdNews Colorado. This time, he gives it an A-.

“My basic mantra is you have to leave it better than you found it. Hopefully I’ve done that with my part.”


Struggling Aurora elementary must decide next steps on recommendations

Teachers at Lyn Knoll Elementary should get more than 20 minutes per day for planning, school officials should consider switching to a district-selected curriculum for literacy, and the school should find a way to survey neighborhood families who send their children to school elsewhere.

Those are some of the recommendations for improvement presented to Aurora’s school board this week by a committee overseeing the work at Lyn Knoll.

But because the school has a status that allows it more autonomy, those recommendations cannot be turned into mandates, committee members told the school board this week. Instead, school officials must now weigh these suggestions and decide which they might follow.

Bruce Wilcox, president of the Aurora teachers union and member of the joint steering committee, said he doesn’t expect every recommendation “to come to fruition,” but said whether or not each recommendation is followed is not what’s important.

“It really will come down to, is improvement made or not,” Wilcox said.

Rico Munn, the superintendent of Aurora Public Schools, had recommended Lyn Knoll for turnaround after the school fell to the state’s lowest quality rating last year. Enrollment at the school has also dropped. But the Aurora school board voted instead to wait another year to see if the school itself can make improvements.

Munn Thursday suggested that the board may still make part of that decision contingent on approval of the school’s action plan.

The union-led joint steering committee that wrote the recommendations offered to monitor and guide the school during the 2018-19 school year as it tries to improve, but it’s a role the group has never taken on before. Part of that role has already started with committee members visiting the school for observations.

“The purpose of the joint steering committee is to be a place the schools can go to and ask for guidance,” Wilcox said. “This is where it’s doing well.”

Lyn Knoll is one of three district-run schools in Aurora that have pilot status, which was created about 10 years ago when the district worked with its teachers union to create a path for schools to earn autonomy.

This was before Colorado passed the law that allows schools to seek innovation status, which is a state process that grants schools waivers from some state, district, and union rules as a way to try new ideas.

“At the time that pilot schools came in, our district was very lockstep,” Wilcox said. “What was done at one school was done at the other. That was the framework.”

Schools that wanted to try something different or unique could apply to the district for pilot status if they had a plan with school and community support. Each pilot school also had to create a school governing board that could include teachers and community members that would help the school make decisions.

At Lyn Knoll, one of the popular innovations involved letting students have physical education every day of the week, something not common in many schools.

Another of the district’s pilot schools, William Smith High School, uses its status to lead a school unlike any other in the district, with a project-based learning model where students learn standards from different subjects through real-life scenarios and projects.

The Aurora district, like many districts around the country, now has created more ways beyond pilot status for principals to make specific changes at their school.

In Aurora, Munn said the current structure of the district, which now has “learning communities,” is meant to be responsive to the differences between groups of schools.

“We’re really trying to strongly connect different parts of the district and be flexible and there are different ways of doing that,” Munn said.

Schools can come to the district and request permission to use a different curriculum, for instance, or to change their school calendar so students can be released early on certain days for teacher planning time. There’s also a district application process so that schools that need specific help or resources from the district can request them. And more recently, schools that want several, structured, waivers are more likely to apply for the state’s innovation status, which provides “a stronger framework,” Munn said.

The district said current pilot school principals could not speak about their school model for this story.

Lyn Knoll currently has no principal for next year. Officials at Thursday’s board meeting suggested waiting until a new principal is identified or hired so that person could work with the school’s governing board on a plan for change. It was unclear how soon that might happen, although finalists are being scheduled for interviews next week.

Clarification: The story has been updated to reflect that the need for a principal at Lyn Knoll is for next year.

Give and take

Aurora district may start sharing local dollars with charters a year early, in exchange for higher fees

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at the AXL Academy charter school in Aurora work on math problems in 2015.

The Aurora school district has a plan for how to comply with last year’s law requiring that districts share local funding with their charter schools, and it includes raising the fees that it charges those schools.

The law requires districts that weren’t already sharing the funds from voter-approved tax increases to do so.

Rico Munn, Aurora’s superintendent, argued against the move last year, but the law ultimately passed. It allows school district’s time to plan and doesn’t go into effect until the fall of 2019.

District leaders told the school board during a meeting last week there was no reason to wait.

“Our budget decisions don’t get easier in future years, and it’s kind of our position that it’s easier to rip the bandaid off now than it is to wait one more year for something that we know is coming,” Brett Johnson, the district’s chief financial officer, told the board.

District staff told the school board that Aurora Public Schools initially didn’t have many charter schools, and so provided many services at no charge. But now that more charters have opened in the district and as more are expected to come, a recent evaluation has helped the district come up with updated fees.

Currently, charter schools in Aurora pay a flat fee of $12,000, plus additional fees that add up to roughly $750 per student. The district is proposing to do away with the flat fee and add almost $200 per student in additional fees, bringing the total to $949. Some schools will save money and others will pay more, depending on how many students they have.

The increased fees mean the district will recoup some of the money they would otherwise have to hand over to charter schools, but for charter schools, the deal still means more funding.

Aurora currently gives charter schools about $3.05 million a year. Under the new law, the district expects its charter school allocation would be $6.54 million. The net increase in what the district spends on charter schools, after the increased fees, would be $2.5 million.

Board members supported the plan, questioning why the district had been “undercharging” charter schools in the first place.

“Certain services were done in-kind just because we had a smaller number of schools,” said Mackenzie Stauffer, the district’s charter school coordinator.

The services the district provides to charter schools can include administering or having a monitor for assessments, or helping schools evaluate a student who might be gifted.

The Aurora district created an office of autonomous schools in 2016. The office includes one staff member who just works with charter schools and whose position is funded by the required fees charged to all Aurora charter schools.

That department has created a new review process for charter school applications and a new process for charter school renewals, among other work.

“What we’re trying to do is make sure that the fee schedule moving forward can support the growth of charter schools, which we already know is happening,” Stauffer said.

Dan Schaller, director of governmental affairs for the Colorado League of Charter Schools, said he was not aware of other districts looking at similar deals and questioned the pairing of both sharing and charging charters money.

“My question would be why now?” Schaller said. “Given the whole debate and intent about equalizing funding, why would they be trying to do anything to circumvent it?”

Kathryn Mullins, the founder and executive director of Vega Collegiate Academy, said she learned about the proposal earlier this month at a meeting with charter school leaders, and said most were in support.

“For us personally, it makes sense,” Mullins said.