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).
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, 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.”