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

Another View: Sherlock Holmes for Superintendent

Another View #141
Peter Huidekoper,Jr.
January 5, 2016

Curiosity – a key ingredient to better schools

We celebrate curiosity in our students. Their curiosity and wonder provides much of the joy for those of us who teach. We depend on it.  Even for our jaded juniors and seniors, thank God, it’s still there.

Education leaders would be wise to show more of this quality.  A good classroom taps into a young person’s willingness to explore and be a “tireless investigator.” A good school district needs this too.

I wonder if a lack of curiosity is the key difference behind the progress, or lack of same, over the past ten years in two neighboring school districts, Denver Public Schools and Aurora.  Both led by folks quite new to K-12 education, Michael Bennet and Tom Boasberg in DPS, John Barry and Rico Munn in Aurora.  One advantage of being new to the public education system: fresh eyes.  A disadvantage: so much to learn.

“Arthur Conan Doyle was a curious and tireless investigator his entire life.” (DMNS)

To learn, we must be curious.  It was a joy to feel the sense of wonder in the kids buzzing through the Sherlock Homes exhibit recently at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.  Eager to solve the mystery.  Before it closes later this month, I encourage school board members, superintendents, and district administrators to go.  They too might be inspired by the enthusiasm of the boys and girls. “Look!” “I don’t see….” “But what about…?” “Hey, I found it!”

Sherlock tackles the curious case of the school district that ….

It is not a joy—it is deeply disappointing—to hear education leaders sound disinterested in what else might be working. I can’t learn from reports by outside groups—what do they know of our efforts? I can’t learn from other districts similar to mine.  I can’t learn from the PARCC results.

If Not Now Coalition[1]

Rise Colorado, Together Colorado, A+ Denver, Colorado Succeeds, Colorado Children’s Campaign, Urban Land Conservancy, Fax Aurora, Stapleton Foundation, Education Reform Now, Mango House, Human Pope Foundation, Ardas Family Medicine, Project Worthmore, Focus Points, ACAD, Colorado African Organization, and Latinos for Education Reform.

  1. Oct. 7 – If Not Now report on Aurora Public Schools – Sherlock would ask: what is working in DPS?

In October a report, If Not Now: Transforming Aurora Public Schools, backed by the If Not Now Coalition, included a striking contrast in the recent performance of DPS versus Aurora.  The comparison seemed valid given the similar socio-economic makeup of the two districts (see box, below).  This was not a comparison between Aurora and Boulder (20% FRL), or between Aurora and Cheyenne Mountain 12 (less than 15% FRL).  The analysis compared APS with its next-door-neighbor to the west, where overall poor results for decades have been the focus of many reform efforts.  Enough similarities, one would think, to cause a curious school leader—with increased urgency, now, with APS in its

Similar socio-economic makeup on DPS and APS – 2014[2]
% minority % Free & reduced lunch
Aurora Public Schools 82.25 69.42
Denver Public Schools 77.96 69.77

4th straight year Accredited on Priority Improvement—to note the progress in Denver and say: what can we learn from the school district next door?

Instead, this is what we heard:

Colorado Public Radio, Oct. 7, 2015

“Dismayed By Struggling Aurora Public Schools, A New Coalition Demands Change”

Audio: CPR’s Jo Ann Allen Speaks With Education Reporter Jenny Brundin

The 40,000 students in Aurora Public Schools score among the worst in Colorado on state tests. About half don’t graduate from high school, and fewer than one in 10 make it all the way through college….

How is the district responding to this report?

Superintendent Rico Munn, who (has) been on the job for just two years, doesn’t dispute the data. In fact, the district released its own updated strategic plan this week that said the “longstanding failure must come to an end.”

“We’ve got a long way to go,” said Superintendent Munn. “We don’t hide from that fact we try to take a very aggressive stance around building our capacity around what is some very difficult reform work.”

The coalition report spends some time comparing Aurora to Denver. Are their schools demographically similar? 

Yes, and it shows Denver’s students outperforming Aurora’s. Looking at math scores from 2010-14 for example, Denver’s went up 17 percentage points while Aurora’s went down 7 percentage points.

But Denver has had an intensive reform plan underway for many years already, with millions of dollars in foundation money supporting that effort.

What’s Aurora’s response to (the report’s recommendations)?

Munn said he thinks the report has a tone that the district should adopt Denver’s strategic plan.

“What works for Denver, works great for Denver and it may or not make any sense for a whole host of reasons that are specific to our district,” he said…. He says the district has already drawn on lots of national expertise to help craft a reform plan.

“So we are doing a lot of work around identifying, naming and replicating really good practices. We just may not be doing it in a way that Denver does,” Munn said.

The above are excerpts from the full article, available at:     (Bold mine)

Two points. 1) In its 26 pages, the If Not Now report makes no mention of the Denver strategic plan.

2) Among the report’s 8 recommendations, #4 states: “Build exemplar new schools – including replications of high performing schools such as charters – that quickly serve as exemplars of success within the district “ (see Addendum A for the full recommendation). I add a few facts here that might inform that suggestion. Over the past decade Denver Public Schools closed a number of low-performing schools and opened many new charters. The 2014 Donnell-Kay Foundation report: Beyond Averages: School Quality in Denver Public Schools, made a persuasive case connecting overall improved academic performance in DPS to this strategy. According to the Colorado Department of Education, DPS has authorized 52 charter schools; Aurora has authorized six.[3] Over a span of three years, 2010-11 to 2012-13, DPS opened 17 charters, Aurora just one. (Three other charters operate inside APS, authorized by the Charter School Institute.)

  1.     Oct. 27 – Innovation Zone for APS – Sherlock would investigate innovation schools in DPS

The proposal for an Innovation Zone in APS for the endangered Aurora Central High (5th straight year onPriority Improvement) and several of its feeder schools shows a willingness on the part of the central office to begin to consider some rethinking regarding district control and school governance.  But does it look next door for advice?  (DPS has 40 of the 63 innovation schools in the state.[4] To date APS has none.) Plenty of Denver’s innovation schools, after all, have not made progress.  A three-year study of 19 DPS Innovation schools should raise red flags for Aurora. Much to learn from there![5]

When Superintendent Munn moderated a Community Conversation on October 27 to explain the goals of the Innovation Zone, who was on the panel touting the benefits for its innovation schools?  The chief education officer of the Falcon school district, Peter Hilts.  OK, Falcon has the second highest number of innovation school in the state (10); but it has what, exactly, in common with APS? (see Addendum B)  Sherlock Holmes would have been far more curious about the Denver story.  DPS can be a great learning lab to any district (APS, Adams 14, Mapleton, Sheridan, etc.) eager to benefit from the successes and failures in the state’s capital city.  But Aurora … curious?  Hey, we do things our way!

  1.  Dec. 11 – PARCC scores in Aurora – Sherlock would take out his magnifying glass to see if ….

Six weeks later, when the PARCC results were published, one did not expect APS leaders to be pleased. But were they curious?  Any information there to learn from?  School-by-school data to dig into?

Chalkbeat Colorado – Aurora: ‘We know we need to do better.’

Of the state’s top 20 districts, the troubled Aurora Public Schools district posted the lowest scores on the PARCC tests: 20 percent of students met or exceeded expectations in language arts, and just 12 percent met those marks in math.

With 18 schools considered failing by the state and the district’s accreditation hanging in the balance, the inner-ring suburban district has come under greater scrutiny as of late.

Superintendent Rico Munn, two years into the job, is urging patience as the district hopes to see results from reforms that include reallocating more than $10 million dollars to schools, changing how it recruits and retains principals, and creating a turnaround leadership team.

Munn called the district’s PARCC scores “unacceptable.” … “We know we need to do better. We know we can do better. We are looking at this as the new baseline data set we can grow from.” Munn said of the data on Aurora schools in turnaround status: “I didn’t learn anything. We know our schools that have the most significant challenges. This didn’t give me any new information about that.” (Bold mine.)[6]

Well, APS school board members might be eager to find out for themselves.  They might recall their response to the district’s grim results in 2013-14, presented on Aug. 19, 2014. My notes from that meeting have one board member say: “These numbers are very discouraging, very disturbing.” Another asks: “How do we explain a decline so we don’t repeat this process?” (The official minutes of that meeting, per usual, do not include such quotes: see Addendum C).  They will be curious: any better in 2014-15?  With new assessments, so difficult to compare … exactly why it’s worth a closer look.

Inquisitive board members will surely ask about schools “on the accountability clock” during Munn’s second year as superintendent. Especially the results at Aurora Central High School, the focus of the district’s plan for an Innovation Zone.  In 2013 APS won a three-year federal Tiered Intervention Grant worth $2.5 million to support the school’s transformation (; roughly $1.8 of that was to have been spent by the start of this school year.  Progress?   Last spring less than 10% of freshmen met expectations in English.  Good grief!*  Actually, a glance at the 2015 PARCC scores in English at three of Aurora’s four big high schools invites a host of questions. Such as: At this rate, how many seniors will be college ready…? (*Even before seeing the PARCC results at Aurora Central, a warning from CDE: see


PARCC – ELA – 2015 – 3 high schools – % meet expectations

9 10 11 Average 9-11
State 37.8 37.4 39.9 38.4
DPS 34.3 31 35.6 33.6
APS 21.3% 22.6% 22.7% 22.2
Hinkley 19.6 20.0 18.8 19.5
Gateway 14.5 19.4 21.1 18.3
Aurora Central <10% 17.6 19.8 15.8

APS board members will be equally curious about the performance for students in the early grades.

5 (of the 13) APS elementary or K-8 schools on Priority Improvement or Turnaround

                                                                      Rating on state’s School Performance Framework

2014 (same for 2015)

PARCC results – grades 3-5 – % meeting expectations


ELA                                             MATH

3 4 5 3 4 5
STATE of Colorado 38.2% 41.7% 40.5% 36.7% 30.2% 30.1%
Aurora Public Schools 18.4% 20.6% 18.8% 15.5% 12.2% 11.2%
Boston K-8* 4th straight year onPriority Improvement <10% 8.7% <11% 5.8% <11% <11%
Fletcher Community School 3 of last 5 years onTurnaround Plan <7% 5.3% 6.4% <7% <7% 3.8
Paris Elementary* 4 of last 5 years onPriority Improvement <7% <8% <9% <7% <8% <9%
Sable Elementary Last 2 years on

Priority Improvement

11.6% 20.6% 8.3% <6% <8% 5.6%
Wheeling Elementary 4 of last 5 years onPriority Improvement 5.3% 10.2% 11.9% <6% 6.8% <6%

*Schools likely to be part of the district’s proposed Innovation Zone.

In only one of these five schools, in one grade, on one test (Sable Elementary, 4th grade, ELA) were more than 12% of the students meeting expectations.  Huge consequences, of course, for the middle schools….

Dramatic improvement of an urban school district is often called a “Herculean task.”  But brains, not brawn, is needed here—hence I look to Sherlock Holmes as my fictional hero.  To solve this curious case, we must investigate what is working for students like ours, explore all that is possible, and ask—and ask again: what can we learn—even from our next door neighbor….  That, to quote Sherlock, is elementary.


Another View is a newsletter by Peter Huidekoper.  Comments are welcome. 303-757-1225 –


Addendum A – from If Not Now report – Recommendation #4

4.  Build exemplar new schools – including replications of high performing schools such as charters – that quickly serve as exemplars of success within the district.

The district’s current plans to improve student achievement look at the district or network level: the current Innovation Zone approach structures committees to look at Aurora Central and its feeder schools. While the Zone Action Committee and Zone Design Committee are meeting this year, they must finalize much of their work before School Design Committees start engaging in the redesign process. The district should push for and prioritize more immediate conversations about school-level solutions and designs.

A successful school can serve as both a proof point and a beacon: if one school in APS can improve outcomes for all its students, then every school in APS can improve outcomes for all its students. The district needs schools that deploy programming, supports, and instruction that drive student achievement outcomes.

Different school models, including high-quality charter schools, are an important tool that the district should use in tandem with other efforts to improve achievement across the entire district. For example, charters can help serve the growing student population in Aurora, can more easily innovate and tailor instruction to focus on immigrants, refugees, English language learners, students who are significantly behind grade level, students with disabilities, or students who are gifted and talented.

Regardless of focus, successful charters and other new schools are an opportunity for Aurora to find new ways of educating its students and replicating the success in all schools. To effectively integrate charters and other innovative school models into the district strategy there must be strong systems and structures to support collaboration and best practice sharing. Districts like Denver, New York, LA, Spring Branch and Memphis have successfully coupled charters with other school improvement strategies. (, pp 20-21.) 


Addendum B – Aurora, Denver, and Falcon


from Colorado Department of Education –

Aurora Denver Falcon
Total Enrollment  (2014-15) 40,009 83,891 19,274
Black 18% 14% 6%
Hispanic 54% 57% 23%
White 18% 22% 61%
FRL             70% 70% 33%
ELL % 41% 33% 4%
Homeless % 6% 1% 0%
Accreditation (2014)
Official DPS Accreditation Rating Priority Improvement Improvement Accredited
Official DPF % Points Earned 44.7 54.4 70.4
Year Entering Priority Improvement or Turnaround Year 4
School Plan Type (2014)
Turnaround 2 30 0
Priority Improvement 16 16 0
Improvement 13 44 2
Performance 24 97 20
Official SPF Indicator % and Ratings (2014)
Achievement 27.8 – Does Not Meet 41.7 – Approaching 69.4  – Meets
Growth 56.0 – Approaching 69.0 – Meets 65.5 –  Meets
Growth Gaps 51.7 – Approaching 57.2 – Approaching 53.9 –  Approaching
Post-Secondary 37.5 – Approaching 43.8 – Approaching 82.8 –  Meets

(Bold mine.)

Addendum C – Excerpts from minutes of APS Board of Education meeting – Aug. 19, 2014

In 2014, the overall APS proficient and advanced scores decreased in reading, writing and math, one percent to two percent, compared to the 2012-13 school year. Elementary proficiency scores were stable with a .5 decrease in proficiency scores; middle school proficiency scores decreased 3.2 percent, and high school proficiency scores were stable with a .5 percent decrease in proficiency. The district experienced declines in median growth percentiles in 14 of 21 grade/subject areas. … (p. 10060)

(Jorgenson) asked if staff felt a sense of urgency as a result of declines across grade levels. Youngquist expressed that significant systemic instructional changes and shifts in professional learning did not occur last year. He shared that the entire team feels the sense of urgency to increase growth and develop a common understanding of growth moving forward. He noted that the presence of directors and support staff in schools and developing next steps is part of the strategy. Munn also acknowledged the sense of urgency and discussed the importance of providing the right supports to schools. (pp. 10061-62)

Drevon asked about staff reaction to the 2013-14 data. Escárcega was surprised by declines experienced in sixth and eighth grades. She attributed some of the variables to both new students and teachers and emphasized the importance of providing supports to first-year teachers.  (p. 10062)                                                                                                  (Bold mine.)

[1] “The If Not Now Coalition is a diverse group of nonprofits in both Aurora and around the state of Colorado that are deeply committed to supporting the Aurora Public School District’s dramatic improvement of public education in Aurora.”

[5] – study conducted by the University of Colorado at Denver, The Evaluation Center, School of Education and Human Development.

[6]Munn’s letter to the community on the “unacceptable” APS scores struck a different note.  “As a result, we are thinking differently about our work.”-