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The League’s Interview with Aurora Public Schools (APS) Office of Autonomous Schools

Thursday, October 25, 2018  
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The League’s Interview with Aurora Public Schools (APS) Office of Autonomous Schools

by: Jen Savino

New School Development Specialist



I requested to meet with Mackenzie Khan, Director of Charter Schools with Aurora Public Schools Office of Autonomous Schools, to discuss innovation, choice, school support, and new beginnings, because I was intrigued by her enthusiasm for her work and her excitement for innovation. Mackenzie has served as director for the past four months and prior to that as coordinator  for two years. Previously, Mackenzie served charter schools for four years in Florida.

Similarly to what we would do with school design teams at our office of New School Development at the Colorado League of Charter Schools, I first asked Mackenzie for her department’s “Elevator Speech.” She stated:

 

The Office of Autonomous Schools is a department of Aurora Public Schools that supports the innovative transformation of specifically assigned district schools and oversees the authorization of charter school choice options for Aurora families. We recognize the need for customized school supports built around student and community needs, and offer high-quality school options to the Aurora community through our fidelity to advocacy, accountability, and practice. Schools supported by the Office of Autonomous Schools are provided with the flexibility and resources to craft creative, research-based systems that impact student achievement and transform today’s educational practices.

 

Mackenzie offers that her favorite part of her job is “assisting charter schools through all of their ‘life stages’ — from infancy to maturation, planning stages to periods of continuous improvement, and growth from year to year. Walking alongside passionate groups of leaders through the application phase to then see students learning and thriving in those buildings brings no greater joy.” Regarding the most challenging yet more rewarding elements of her role, Mackenzie focuses on how advocating for schools directly involves holding them to high standards and being transparent with the community, something she admits conflicts with the perspective of some charter school advocates who view high expectations and accountability as oppositional. She reports, “this approach has allowed our board and district to have faith in our recommendations.”


ACCOUNTABILITY

The rigorous charter review process that APS engages in every year ensures that all applications meet the highest standards. In fact, this past year, APS started the review process with 11 charter applications. That number narrowed down to two by the final recommendation to the Board of Education, which had near-unanimous approval for both applications. Mackenzie stresses the importance of  combating the misconception that accountability is negative.


Developing the authorizer-applicant relationship is also a big part of this shift in perception that Mackenzie and her team are working toward; Mackenzie mentions their open-door policy and the fact that they develop trust and relationships with applicants well before the application process itself is even begun by being available, supportive, and resource-generous as consistently as possible. Accountability is not punitive here, it is helpful, constructive, and beneficial to both parties. Viewing this relationship itself and functioning within it as a partnership — as early in the process as possible — can pay off in the long term, resulting in greater renewal success and sustainability. In APS, 4,200 students accounted for 11% of total APS student enrollment in 2016 before the creation of the Office of Autonomous Schools. Since then, five additional school campuses have been approved or have already opened.


USING TECHNOLOGY

Another area of focus for continuous improvement in Mackenzie’s department is enhancing the web technologies that support their work. In 2017, they began utilizing Charter.Tools, a software suite for charter schools and authorizers, providing supports specific to charter applications, application evaluation, compliance management, and accountability management. “[The software] has increased our office’s capacity tenfold, but has also made life easier for charter applicants and current operators by providing a clean, clear platform for operators to interact with various district departments regarding compliance items, and provides applicants a way to digitally submit their applications using clear templates and instructions.”


Another advancement in this area by the department includes switching to the Google platform, which aligns with their belief in the importance of transparency and access by improving, streamlining, and sharing information and resources by and for schools through Google Drive. This transition allowed them to compile and organize all of their resources into a digital handbook for APS charter schools, made available for the first time this year. This handbook, because of the unique online platform, is a living document that can be updated in real time with resources, contract statute requirements, and FAQs.  


The Office of Autonomous Schools places a high priority on supporting new schools and new school leaders, particularly in their work with the Action Leadership Cohort, a new leadership development pilot offered by APS: “We know that building the capacity of our talent is a key lever of sustainable success for our schools. ACTION Leadership is our approach to provide rigorous and relevant professional development for our current and future school leaders. This year, we are piloting the program with leaders from our ACTION Zone schools with the intention of scaling beyond the Zone in the near future. We have also invited charter leaders to participate in some of our innovative learning experiences and workshops this year.”

 

ADVICE FOR DEVELOPERS

I asked Mackenzie about advice she would give to a new school developer who was interested in opening a charter school in Aurora. She responded, “Know the difference between engagement and deep, meaningful, authentic engagement, and use that to drive your approach, learning, and design in the application process. Be honest with yourself about your gaps, and solicit a board and other people and organizations to fill those gaps, but who also hold you to quality. Ensure that the essence of equity, diversity, and inclusionary practices are embedded in your DNA and in that of the organization, and if they are not, do not apply.”

 

Finally, Mackenzie shared with me what she would like people to know about APS. She stated, “APS does not attempt to act like other districts. Aurora has a unique community which requires a unique approach, and we want people to spend time truly getting to know us before passing judgement. Maintaining high-quality authorizing practices is a top priority, and we are forever in a stage of reflection and continuous improvement. We are proud of our community and the educational options we provide our students and families.”

 

The League is proud to work with APS,and grateful to Mackenzie and her team for taking the time to tell us about their work.  



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