This is the story of what happened when teachers and administrators in Aurora, Colorado, worked side by side to redesign a middle school.
Together, we were able to innovate, plan and produce a flexible school model aimed at improving student performance, engagement and equity.
Aurora Hills Middle School is the first school in the Aurora Public Schools district to pilot the model. Our new learning design and schedule allow us to differentiate and accelerate instruction, offer new learning opportunities in both STEM subjects and the humanities, and increase the amount of time available for teacher planning and professional development.
We were inspired to make these changes to our program following our district’s close collaboration with School by Design, a software and services company founded by education leaders that partners with technology experts. School by Design provides the insights and options that enable districts to solve difficult resource challenges and design schools that best meet student and teacher needs — without spending more money.
The district enlisted help from School by Design starting in the fall of 2017 to figure out how to implement a more innovative model for its middle schools. The push for innovation was also tied to a larger effort to strategically redesign the Aurora budget and improve student performance at schools in the turnaround process. Several of the district’s schools were in various stages of turnaround, including mine.
As a first-year principal of a Title I school, I knew that the challenges ahead were considerable and that Aurora Hills Middle School needed a bold, fresh approach. School by Design had shared several scenarios for the district to consider, and one in particular resonated with me. Specifically, I saw how it would allow me to use flexible scheduling to achieve some of the goals I had outlined the previous summer, when I participated in the UVA School Turnaround Program.
To take our school in a new direction, it was essential that teachers were not only engaged, but also helping to steer the process themselves. Together with my leadership team, we introduced the staff to what we were trying to achieve in large groups, small groups and through individual conversations. We began with some open-ended questions and learned that they shared our desire to improve how we were allocating our time and resources. When we told them we had an opportunity to play around with some alternative scheduling ideas, they were eager to be part of the process. Indeed, we quickly had a high level of buy-in and enthusiasm.
Over the next few months, we worked closely with a field expert to develop a framework for our new school design. In February, a majority of staff voted on and approved our new flexible master schedule, and the next phase of planning began in earnest. This past summer, we also participated in a week-long training program run by UnboundEd to support our efforts to promote equitable access as an integral element of the plan.
With our new flexible schedule, which we were able to implement at no additional cost, we are able to put a much greater emphasis on cross-curricular learning and increase student engagement via enriching new “plus” programs. Taught by expert staff, plus programs were developed based on student interest and include options such as World Languages & Cultures, Art, Music and a leadership class taught by the administrative team. STEM subjects also figured prominently in the plan. Students in each grade now have PLUS day once a week.
During this time, the core classroom teachers for that grade participate in a full day of professional development. Here are the five pillars of the new schedule:
1. Flexible instructional time that allows teachers to group and regroup students for acceleration, intervention and enrichment experiences.
2. New interdisciplinary learning opportunities in STEM, Digital Literacy, and World Languages & Cultures centered on project-based learning, with real-world emphasis.
3. Expanded opportunities for student musicians, including those in both intermediate and advanced Band and Orchestra, to prepare students for high school performing arts programs.
4. Daily elective courses for all students, including Physical Education/Health, Spanish and AVID. Previously, students who were receiving both special education and English Language Development (ELD) support did not have room in their schedules for electives.
5. One full day a week of “Mustang U” teacher professional development for each grade-level team. Focused on creating equitable outcomes for students, Mustang U is goal-driven, student-focused and collaborative. It includes time for teachers to assess student data and plan lessons across disciplines. It also includes two hours of targeted professional development to build new skill-sets as well as ELD training for all staff.
Students, parents and teachers have been sharing their enthusiasm for our new learning design and schedules. When asked for feedback, one teacher wrote: “I really appreciated having extensive planning time in content areas and being able to have an in-depth conversation with my teaching partner about our shared vision of how the year should unfold.”
None of this would have been possible without teachers being willing to own the process and reimagine how their school worked. With their active involvement, plus the support of parents and a high level of student engagement, we are better positioned to accelerate student learning and achieve the vision that every student shapes a successful future.
This story about teachers and school design was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.
Marcella Garcia is principal of Aurora Hills Middle School, a Title I school in Aurora, Colorado.