These posts are the opinions of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of A+ Colorado.


Transformative Transitions: Fletcher & Rocky Mountain Prep

By Landon Mascareñaz

This article is the first part of a multi-part series on potentially transformative school improvement initiatives, leading up to A+ Colorado’s Turnaround Convening on May 4, 2018. Save the date and stay tuned for more information.  

Purpose

A+ Colorado is deeply committed to understanding and sharing research and best practice that has the potential to transform student outcomes.  This piece is focused on understanding a potentially transformative transition happening in Aurora around Fletcher Elementary School.  

This piece was conducted based on conversations and discussions with students, families, and staff at the current Rocky Mountain Prep (RMP) and Fletcher transition in Aurora Public Schools.  A+ Colorado had the opportunity to sit down with leaders from both schools, staff from Aurora Public Schools and RMP alongside parents and students.

The success of this transition carries broader implications for the Colorado education community. In a new climate in which high-performing charter networks are exploring outside of Denver, many smaller districts may be wondering if they can pursue bold turnaround strategies in partnership with high performing charter operators.  

We conclude that the Fletcher transition, thanks to the work of both RMP and Aurora Public Schools, represents a possible best practice in trust-based transition that facilitates future academic success and creates safety and security for parents. This report seeks to understand the big lessons from this transition and identify focus areas for future school transitions.  

Thanks to the following for primary interviews

  • Principal Heather Stewart of Fletcher Elementary
  • Principal Caitlin Vaughan of Rocky Mountain Prep Fletcher
  • Emily Dorn, Manager of External Relations, Rocky Mountain Prep
  • John Lyons, Aurora Public Schools

Also special thanks to the staff and parents of both schools whom A+ Colorado spoke to for background and context for this report.  

Context

In April 2016, Chalkbeat and A+ reported on a first for Aurora Public Schools – news that a charter network may have an opportunity to help turnaround a struggling school.  This was a big move for Aurora Public Schools (APS) and a big move for the charter network, eventually selected, Rocky Mountain Prep (RMP). The work required a multi-year transition between starting up the new RMP program at the school while phasing-out the current Aurora-run program at Fletcher.  Fletcher had been on the state watch list for over a decade and had state test results that were in the lowest in the state (read more here).  RMP had experience with transitions but had never been asked by a district to “turnaround” an existing school.  RMP had shared campuses but had never worked outside of Denver Public Schools.  This is also the first time that RMP worked to serve students in a boundary zone.  APS had recently created an Office of Autonomous Schools (OAS) and was interested in creating the best climate for building new momentum.  The Fletcher transition was an opportunity for exploration for both parties, with the potential for frustration and failure.

This initiative led to both community pushback and support.  Some feared the loss of a community school while others were excited about the opportunity for a new, high-quality option for their students.  The political tension was intense which made success even more important.  

Timeline of Transition

As with any transition, it is important to establish timelines for continuity and clarity.  The table below outlines the sequence of the phase-out and phase-in timeline.  

School Year Fletcher Grade RMP Grades Additional Notes
SY 2016-17 K-5; AC PK
SY 2017-18* 3-5; AC PK-2
SY 2018-19 4-5; AC PK-3 Planning year to transition AC
SY 2019-20 PK-5; AC Major transition to full RMP program

*current year at time of publication

AC = Autism Center

A transition can be a “make or break” moment for a school restart or turnaround.  The website guidebook on school restarts argues transition points are essential to success.

“…Done well, the transition will maintain stability at the closing school and ensure that students make as much academic progress as possible and gain interest in and enthusiasm about the restart provider. Done poorly, the transition creates a chaotic environment for parents and students, and affords opponents the opportunity to undermine and even potentially overturn the school restart decision.”

Therefore, a few key lessons from the Fletcher process can inform others about how to plan a execute a successful school transition.   

Big Lesson #1: Leaders Plan & Set the Stage for Transition

A recurring theme was the importance of alignment.  The leadership in both schools and the district was united in its support for the transition. All parties identified the outgoing Fletcher principal as an exemplary servant leader who effectively made the case to her staff and families about the need for change and cooperation.  All groups also made it clear that RMP network leadership and Aurora leadership, from Superintendent Munn to school support staff, were essential in ensuring the process went smoothly. “We need to credit the leaders who built anchor relationships. They took on strong leadership and stewardship roles to ensure trust continued forward,” Principal Stewart suggested.  

When both leaders met for the first time, they put all of their assumptions on the table.  Principal Stewart said that she “was transparent about what I’d heard and shared some of the assumptions I’d understood.”  Both leaders met up early in the process and visiting RMP to learn more. They built a strong communication pattern. Principal Vaughan wanted honesty as the foundation of the trust: “The partnership is critical. We share space, serve the same families, value our reputation, etc. We want to be transparent and clear about we do and are trying to dispel myths. In particular, there have been rumors our discipline system is about kicking kids out – we don’t do that.”  Spending time building relationships and sharing these perspectives was a productive place to begin.  

Too often in our education conversation, leaders get bogged into “us vs. them” mindsets and mentalities.  The situation at Fletcher doesn’t fall into this category.  Rocky Mountain Prep CEO, James Cryan credits the tone set by district leadership, “Superintendent Munn has been incredibly focused on ensuring the success of this transition for the students and community.” Leaders and staff at both schools also expressed appreciation to their leadership who framed the challenges, pointed a way forward and made it clear why this work was important. “My teachers have been focused on kids first, transition second,” Principal Stewart mentioned. Principal Vaughan concurred, that both shared messaging around the importance of having a strong transition for the sake of the kids in this building. The “charter vs. district” frame which is sadly too often utilized in our education discourse doesn’t hold here.  In this case the frame is “charter AND district” with both sides committed to a productive partnership and working together for the benefit of students and families.

Big Lesson #2: Align Systems for Staff & Families

One of the major fears of any phase-in/phase-out is the lack of alignment between schools. In the case of RMP and Fletcher, both sides spent time, in the beginning, aligning on logistical and cultural components to ensure that families and staff felt consistency.  Both sides agreed on uniforms, a common schedule and a common daily routine.  These may feel easy, but these are major pieces that stymie most transitions and made a big difference for everyone. Principal Stewart reiterated this: “We’ve spent time at the beginning of the year doing joint professional development and team building. It created opportunities to build compassion for each other as human beings.”

Both schools have prioritized family engagement. Both schools host regular coffee morning meetings for parents and work hard to streamline communication.  These leaders spend time together every week, and it shows. Principal Vaughan:  “We did some great work at the beginning of the year focused on educators building relationships with families. Building strong and trusting relationships was a priority.” Creating broad stakeholder alignment was critical at the start of the process.  

One mother that A+ Colorado heard from praised the powerful impact of the Fletcher transition.  A Rocky Mountain Prep parent, she often meets other parents whose children attend other schools, and she is shocked at how much her child has learned compared to other children.  This, in turn, inspired her to get involved at the school. Now she regularly meets with other parents and the RMP Principal to discuss how they can increase partnership with parents.

Big Lesson #3: Working Together to Improve the Process

One of the main tensions and challenges of any phase-in and phase-out process is that conflicts can flare up and challenges can derail efforts to build trust.

Both sides hit a snag over the car line procedure at arrival and dismissal.  A common RMP process, the pick-up line requires parents to wait in a line to drop off or pick-up students for school. This line extended around the block at the start of the year because parents weren’t used to it. The issue became a subject of controversy for both schools. The networks and leaders leaned into the issue and solved it.  They restated the issue and objectives, ensuring parents understood the protocol.  Principal Vaughan made it clear that meetings between all parties, including parents, had to take place to figure the situation out.  Both agree that the pick-up line is working now and that solving the issue together created cohesion.  

Collaboration in problem-solving was built into operating procedures. Both school leaders allocated time weekly to sit down, meet and plan together. When challenges have come up, they’ve brought in the right people and considered options before making a decision.  Folks frequently mentioned how critical it was to keep “the success of students” at the forefront – not the personality problems of adults.  “Minute to minute struggles happen. But through the arc of the year – those things were small and were outweighed by a spirit of collaboration, positivity and best intent,” says Principal Vaughan.

Next Steps in the Transition

As the Fletcher transition heads into Spring and towards School Year 2018-2019, there are some issues that practitioners and policymakers should take notice.  

  • SY 2018-19 will see Rocky Mountain Prep planning for a transition to full ownership of the autism center in SY 2019-20.  In the contractual agreement, they were under no obligation to do so.  They deserve credit for taking this on and will likely look to the Aurora central office for additional oversight and support.  (Read more about this here).
  • SY 2019-20 school year will be the final year of the legacy Fletcher program. This will mean more stark transitions for parents upcoming which will require even more alignment and work to bring together all the players in the process.  How will the district and RMP double down on their efforts to coordinate?
  • Rocky Mountain Prep and Aurora Public Schools need to pay attention to the big demographic divides and changes in the Aurora community.  The opportunity to invest proactively in recruiting economically diverse students and families as the communities changes is critical.  Given that RMP is supporting all students in a boundary, ensuring all needs are met is an important aspect of the transition.
  • Upcoming assessments should be the first leading indicator of success.  RMP and Aurora should examine the data and adjust accordingly. While RMP will not have PARCC data until after SY 2019-20, internal assessments this year should be a helpful indicator. This data should be shared broadly with families and communities.  

Conclusion

Many education experts are watching the Fletcher case very closely and for good reason.  It was both a politically challenging situation for the Aurora school district and a new venture for Rocky Mountain Prep.  Educator improvement advocates wanted both to succeed for a variety of reasons.

Our analysis concludes that all parties should have something to celebrate. Both Aurora and RMP have shown that when families and educators are invested in a transition, trust can develop during the changes. The planning and leadership shown at the outset set the stage for the alignment between staff and external communication for families.  

District leaders across Colorado should take note of this process, the lessons learned and the next steps. Too many boards and Superintendents have suggested that transitions like these, between district and charters, are doomed to fail because of a myriad of reasons, including the fact that “we don’t have the resources of Denver Public Schools.” The trusting transition at Fletcher has proved them wrong. Indeed, the example shows that not only is a positive transition possible, but it can also have broad affirming impacts on the community. Advocates for education improvement can only hope more districts take note.