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.”

terms of the deal

Aurora school board approves contract for district’s first DSST campus

Students at a campus of DSST, a charter network that is a big piece of Denver's "portfolio" approach to school management. (Denver Post file)

The Aurora school board on Tuesday night — in its last vote before new board members are sworn in — approved a contract with DSST Public Schools for the charter network’s first school outside of Denver.

The contract spells out enrollment and performance expectations, and upon request from Aurora school board members, ensures DSST will have representation from an Aurora resident on their own network governing board.

In June, the board approved DSST’s application to open four schools — two middle and two high schools — starting with one of each in the fall of 2019. The contract approved Tuesday is only for the first campus of a middle and high school.

During public comment, teachers, some parents and union leaders spoke to the board, as they have in past meetings, speaking against the DSST contract.

Among the speakers Tuesday was Debbie Gerkin, one of the newly elected school board members. Gerkin cited concerns with the plan to allow DSST to hire teachers who don’t yet have certifications, echoing a common criticism of charter schools.

“I appreciate there’s been so much hard work put into the DSST contact,” Gerkin said. “I ask that we continue to think about this.”

Board member Cathy Wildman asked the board if they would consider delaying the vote until the new board members are seated at the end of the month. A majority of current board members said they would not support a delay, noting they’ve spent more than a year working on learning about the DSST application and contract.

The school board first discussed the contract details at a meeting in October. At that time, board members asked district staff to go back to discussions with DSST to suggest that they commit to having someone from Aurora on their board of directors.

School board members asked questions about the details of the enrollment process such as whether there would be a preference for siblings, how student vacancies would be filled and whether the guidelines would really make the school demographics integrated.

According to the contract, DSST will give students in the surrounding neighborhoods, those served by elementary schools Rocky Mountain Prep, Paris, Crawford and Montview, first preference for half of the school’s open seats.

The remaining half will first go to any other Aurora students, but if seats are still available after that, students outside the district may enroll.

Enrollment numbers discussed in a separate presentation at the October board meeting show that the target area for the school, in northwest Aurora, is also the area with the largest declining enrollment. Schools in those neighborhoods have been near capacity, but not overcrowded like other schools in the district.

DSST will have a cap of enrolling no more than 450 students. An enrollment cap for charter schools in Aurora is standard, said Lamont Browne, the director of autonomous schools. In the first year, since the school will start with just sixth graders, the school anticipates enrolling 150 students. By April 1, DSST leaders must show the district that they’ve already enrolled at least 75 of those students.

A large section of the DSST contract spells out the district and school’s responsibilities in serving any students with special needs that may want to enroll at DSST.

The contract also includes a section that gives the district a right to close the school or deny a charter renewal if DSST earns a priority improvement rating from the state and doesn’t improve it after one year.

Recent contracts the Aurora school board approved for other charter schools also have requirements for performance, but not as stringent. The contract for The Academy of Advanced Learning, for instance, requires that school to improve after one year of earning a turnaround rating from the state. The turnaround rating is the lowest a school can get.

DSST has similar performance requirements in its contracts with Denver Public Schools allowing for a nonrenewal of a contract if a school has low ratings, but none of the Denver DSST schools have dropped to the lowest two categories of ratings. DSST schools, in fact, consistently are some of the state’s highest performing on state tests.

What the contract still doesn’t detail is a possible new name for Aurora’s DSST schools (the school originally was called the Denver School of Science and Technology) or how the district and the charter will split the cost of the building.

When Superintendent Rico Munn invited DSST to apply to open a school in Aurora, he offered to pay for half the cost of a new building for the charter school.

The bond voters approved in 2016 included money to pay for a new building for the charter school. The contract reiterates earlier commitments that both the district and the charter network must identify the money for a building by March 30.

A contract for the second 6-12 campus would be negotiated at a later time if the charter school meets performance requirements to move forward with opening the third and fourth schools.

Looking ahead

Union-backed candidates prevail in Aurora — and all sides downplay prospect of big immediate change

Union President Bruce Wilcox, far left, addressing four school board candidates: Debbie Gerkin, Kevin Cox, Kyla Armstrong-Romero and Marques Ivey, as they awaited election results Tuesday. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

One day after school board candidates backed by the teachers union swept into power in Aurora, the district superintendent and leaders of charter schools he recruited downplayed potential conflicts and committed to working with the new members.

Union leaders made similar comments Wednesday, expressing optimism that the newly elected members and Superintendent Rico Munn will forge a fruitful relationship.

The four candidates who will make up a majority on the seven-member school board have been critical of charter schools in interviews with Chalkbeat and candidate questionnaires. But in public comments, including during campaign forums, several of the candidates expressed openness to working with some charter schools depending on the circumstances.

That has left some uncertainty about what the election might mean for charter schools, which are a key piece of Munn’s recent reform efforts in Aurora, and the district’s strategies overall.

The newly elected school board members emphasized Tuesday they want to work with the existing leadership and aren’t planning major changes immediately.

Munn told Chalkbeat on Wednesday he needs to hear from the new board before contemplating any shifts to district priorities.

“In our reform strategy we’ve laid out at least nine different strategies that we’ve been implementing across different schools,” Munn said. “Our current board, and I’m sure our new board, may not like every single one of those. But that’s just an ongoing conversation we have to have.”

Put on notice by state education officials in 2010 for low performance, Aurora Public Schools had little choice but to embark on reforms to better serve its diverse population, which has large numbers of black and Latino students, and young refugees fleeing strife around the world.

Munn, hired in 2013, has overseen an approach the district calls “disruptive innovation.” Along with recruiting high-performing charters to the district, Aurora has adopted a new system for hiring meant to strengthen its principal corps, given schools more control over budgets and created an “innovation zone” providing schools within it greater freedom to experiment.

The district’s efforts have attracted interest from private foundations, education reform groups — and a gradually greater investment of attention and money in school board races, a trend that’s nearly a decade old in neighboring Denver.

Two years ago, reform groups from the left and right and a more engaged teachers union sought to influence the Aurora election. The result was split — two incumbents prevailed, and one of two conservative-backed reform candidates won.

Most of this year’s investment from the reform side came from an independent expenditure committee tied to Democrats For Education Reform. The reform community’s two preferred candidates —Miguel In Suk Lovato and Gail Pough — finished fifth and sixth in the race for the four seats. As of the last big campaign finance report deadline, a committee bankrolled by the teachers union had spent even more to help the union-endorsed slate, billed “Aurora’s A-Team.”

Union leadership and the board candidates on the winning slate have expressed concerns about Aurora Public Schools’ decision to close a struggling school and replace it with a charter school, Rocky Mountain Prep. Also coming in for their criticism: Munn’s invitation to DSST, a high performing charter network, to open in Aurora, and his offer to pay for half the cost of a new building.

The DSST deal is expected to be done after the current board votes on the final contract on Nov. 14 — their last meeting before the new board is sworn in.

Bill Kurtz, the CEO of DSST, said Wednesday the charter school network doesn’t have any concerns about working with board members elected as a union-backed slate.

“We’re excited to meet the new school board in Aurora, and excited about our work in Aurora,” Kurtz said. “Like any school board, we will work hard to start to build a strong relationship with the new board to collaborate so we can best serve students in Aurora … Our view of working with the school board in Aurora is no different today than it was yesterday.”

James Cryan, CEO of Rocky Mountain Prep, voiced a similar sentiment.

“I don’t have any concerns at this point,” Cryan said. “We’re proud to be a part of that community.”

Others who support some of Munn’s strategies are urging patience. Tyler Sandberg, a co-founder and senior policy adviser at Ready Colorado, a conservative education reform nonprofit that also invested in the race, said education reform policy discussions are in the early stages in Aurora.

“Charters are only just beginning to demonstrate to the community the quality they can bring,” Sandberg said. “I’m hopeful that the new board members are going to go to the community and realize how empowering some of these charter schools have been for these students. I’m hopeful schools like Rocky Mountain Prep and DSST are going to be able to make a pretty good impression.”

Sandberg also said that reform groups were at a disadvantage against unions which have “built in ground game and funding structure.”

The state teachers union, Colorado Education Association, invested heavily in Aurora after new leadership at the local level began to highlight the concerns of educators including the charter conversion and the DSST invitation, union officials say.

“The community didn’t want to become Denver East,” said Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, a reference to the charter-friendly district next door. “They want to create their own vision of their quality public schools and they want a healthy relationship with the school district, board of education and community.”

Munn has repeatedly expressed a similar message — that Aurora’s school improvement strategies are not a carbon copy of Denver’s and that they are tailored to Aurora’s needs.

Aurora showed enough improvement to pull itself off the state’s watch list for persistent low performance, sparing itself from a state-sanctioned improvement plan. Outside groups, however, including education reform-friendly groups, have complained that the district isn’t doing nearly enough, citing disturbingly low academic proficiency and other troubling statistics.

Although union members and supporters had plenty to celebrate after Tuesday’s election, not all of organizers’ goals were accomplished. Vicky McRoberts, a former union leader who helped work on the Aurora campaign for the teachers union, said Tuesday night that ambitious goals to engage teachers in the campaign fell short.

But she said volunteers who did help campaign were successful in connecting with voters on issues polls showed they cared about — such as increasing career and technical opportunities for students.

Bruce Wilcox, president of the Aurora teacher’s union, said Wednesday that teachers from outside Aurora helped the campaign, as well.

“We also had more teachers than in the past from our own district,” Wilcox said. “A lot of our teachers did more that one event. I think teachers here in the district recognized that this was an important election.”

Wilcox said the union can’t control what the slate of new board members will do, but said teachers and the union just wanted more collaboration with the district, and to feel that their opinion will be heard.

“I don’t anticipate this board to make any sweeping changes,” Wilcox said. “I’m hoping this board can establish a relationship with Mr. Munn and move forward. We’re at a great crossroads. Our long range plans have come to an end. What better way to start that work moving forward.”