Rico Munn has served as the Superintendent of Aurora Public Schools since 2013, and in that time, the district has experienced an increase in graduation rates and significant declines in dropout rates, expulsions, and referrals to law enforcement. In 2019, Mr. Munn was named Superintendent of the Year in Colorado, as well as Aurora’s “Man of the Year.” He served as a litigation partner with a national law firm for over a decade prior to joining APS and also has served in state government.
Host Bio: Dr. Chris Balow is the Chief Academic Officer at SchoolMint. Dr. Balow has a Ph.D in Educational Psychology and served for 33 years as an educator in various roles with focuses on literacy, mental health, and the behavioral and emotional growth of students. He has worked the last 6 years in the educational technology field to promote student success on a larger scale.
Season 2 : Episode 9
Title: District Spotlight: Community Driven Response
Subtitle: How Aurora Public Schools works closely with the community to meet the changing needs of its families.
Welcome to the Change Agents in K-12 podcast. Join our host, Dr. Chris Balow, Chief Academic Officer at SchoolMint, as we dive into thought-provoking, in-depth conversations with top educational leaders. Our goal? The advancement of education and improved outcomes for all students. Listen in, be inspired, and ask yourself, are you ready to be a change agent?
Dr. Chris Balow (00:28):
Welcome to the podcast Change Agents in K-12, where we bring to you some of the most influential educational leaders across the country. And today, it’s a great pleasure of mine to introduce Mr. Rico Munn, who has served as the superintendent of Aurora Public Schools since 2013. And during his tenure, he has eliminated the graduation equity gap and experienced a 25% overall increase in graduation rates, a 50% decline in dropout rates, a 70% decline in expulsions, and a 60% decrease in referrals to law enforcement. Oh my gosh. Incredible accomplishments with increases in achievement, student growth, and college readiness. Mr. Munn was also Superintendent of the Year in Colorado in 2019 and Aurora’s Man of the Year. Prior to joining APS, Mr. Munn was a lawyer, interestingly enough, and served as a litigation partner with a national law firm for over a decade. And he also has served in state government, board of governors at Colorado State University, and was also on governor Bill Ritter’s cabinet as executive director of Colorado Department of Higher Ed, just so many accomplishments. And it’s my great pleasure to welcome Mr. Rico Munn to the podcast.
Rico Munn (01:49):
Thank you, Chris. And thank you for having me.
Dr. Chris Balow (01:51):
Absolutely. So let’s start off, Rico, just tell listeners a little bit about the Aurora Public Schools in Colorado. A little bit about the district.
Rico Munn (02:03):
Sure. APS, as we call the Aurora Public Schools, is Colorado’s fifth largest school district. We serve just a little shy of 40,000 students. We believe we’re one of the most diverse districts in the country. We have kids who come from 130 countries, speak 160 languages, and we’ve got a lot of complexity in the district. We have a high number of English language learners, a little over 50%, and a really high number of free lunch students, a little over 70%, and then a significant refugee population, as you might infer from the numbers I gave you as far as our diversity.
Dr. Chris Balow (02:42):
Wow. So that sounds like a really fun situation to solve. And your bio talked about you having a graduate degree in problem solving as a lawyer, so no shortage of things to problem solve in your district, it sounds like.
Rico Munn (02:57):
Well, it’s a place where we have a lot of complexity, and we embrace that complexity. We appreciate that we get the chance to serve the world from our little part of Colorado.
Dr. Chris Balow (03:09):
Awesome. Tell us a little bit about your structures and your teams that you work with at the district level.
Rico Munn (03:18):
Yeah, I don’t think there’s anything too out of the box as far as our structure. I serve as superintendent. I have a leadership team, or cabinet as some people might refer to it. That includes my chief of staff and a chief academic officer, chief operating officer. And you can guess on the list of those roles. We have several major divisions within our overall structure, including our division of equity and learning, which is our main academic division. We have a division of support services and personnel and a lot of those to structures.
Dr. Chris Balow (04:01):
Okay. Okay. Sounds good. I always ask this question of district leaders. If you could give us a sense of what makes an education, your district unique?
Rico Munn (04:11):
Well, I think what makes it unique is the fact that we embrace that our families and their students are the ones who get to shape what its success looks like. They’re the drivers. And we come along and we talk about it as if we’re a pit crew because they’ve gotta run the race. We don’t get to drive the car. And I think, in a lot of other systems and structures, people want to get in and drive the car and tell families what success looks like, tell families what their outcomes should be. And we very much say you’re the ones who get to dictate that, but we’re professionals who come alongside you and support what your hopes and dreams are.
Dr. Chris Balow (04:49):
Yeah, that’s fantastic. And there’s a lot of interest in the national media around parent involvement. It sounds like you really involve strategically your stakeholders in charting a course.
Rico Munn (05:02):
Well, that’s certainly our goal. I’m not gonna pretend that we’ve got it solved or that we do it perfectly. We have a lot of work that we need to continually do, ‘cause every year our stakeholders change, and when you have a district like ours, in fact, it’s not just every year. It’s every month our stakeholders change.
Dr. Chris Balow (05:20):
Okay. Interesting. One of the things I read about on your district website was about blueprint APS and it kind of along this line that, that it’s really community driven to a certain extent.
Rico Munn (05:35):
Yeah, we’ve done a lot of work to try and get what we call community voice, community choice, really responding to the community’s needs like a lot of urban districts. We are seeing a decline and shift in our enrollment and our demographics, both in who lives here and where they live. And we had to start a process to align our physical infrastructure with those realities. And so we started back in 2017, and we went a good three-and-a-half years of process before we made a single decision. And that was really about digging into the community and talking to the community about what its hopes and dreams were for us as a school district.
Dr. Chris Balow (06:19):
Awesome. It sounds like you really wanted to understand the depth and breadth of the problem and then engage people to solve it. I do a lot of research for my company, in education. One of the things I’ve been looking at is crowdsourcing idea management and engagement of staff and community and even students. So have you ever done any crowdsourcing approaches to idea generation and management?
Rico Munn (06:52):
Well, in terms of the formal structures of crowdsourcing that some folks talk about, I don’t know that we’ve intentionally used those intentional structures. I think, however, there’s a lot of clear similarities between the work we’ve done and a lot of the work and research I’ve seen around the crowdsourcing kind of concept and framework.
Dr. Chris Balow (07:13):
Okay. You mentioned in the last comments about enrollment changes, what’s been happening at APS with regards to student enrollment.
Rico Munn (07:26):
Yeah. We started to see, going back to the 14, 15, 15, 16 school year, a significant decline in enrollment overall that impacted a lot of our traditional geographic areas of our district. However, in the eastern half of the district, there has been a significant uptick in development. And so we have 10 to 14 major developments happening on what was previously undeveloped parts of the district. So in the traditional spaces, we’ve seen a significant decline in the number of school aged kids while we clearly see a wave coming in a place where we have no buildings.
Dr. Chris Balow (08:09):
Wow. So your overall enrollment sounds like it’s fairly steady, but it’s kind of shifting geographically down in some areas and likely to go up in other areas.
Rico Munn (08:21):
Yeah, well we’re seeing, ’cause the timing doesn’t match particularly because we had a pandemic in the middle of it.
Dr. Chris Balow (08:31):
Rico Munn (08:32):
And so we expect, over the next five to 10 years, our enrollment will rebound and, and have a dramatic hockey stick shaped uptick. We haven’t seen it yet, but we see all the houses going up, and we see those communities quickly emerging.
Dr. Chris Balow (08:51):
Right, right. And so there’s a lot of preparation I would assume to be ready when that hockey stick happens.
Rico Munn (08:59):
We’re trying our best to stay with the curve and not get too far ahead of it.
Dr. Chris Balow (09:04):
Yeah. Definitely. Very good. So, speaking of the pandemic, it’s been on everyone’s mind, and I’ve had a lot of conversations with people across the country. So did you lose students during the pandemic and what happened? Did things rebound?
Rico Munn (09:27):
Well, it’s tough to give you a full picture of if we lost students because of the pandemic. Cause I said we were already declining in enrollment.
Dr. Chris Balow (09:34):
Rico Munn (09:34):
What we did it see is similar to everyone else is we saw a precipitous decline in kindergarten, first grade, particularly in the 2021 school year as parents took what we, we all talked about as potentially took a red shirt year where they decided, I don’t want to start school in the middle of this, where it’s online and in mass and all those kinds of things. And so we expect to see a bit of an uptick in the size of kindergarten and first grade classes over the next couple of years. That’s panned out a little bit coming into this year and we think that’ll be the case. But that’s one of those things that we searchers will have to tell us about in the next three years.
Dr. Chris Balow (10:19):
Yeah, definitely. And as I’ve talked to folks across the country, some districts have really seen major declines in enrollment, and they have not seen a rebound, and they’re not sure if they will. And it’s a big question mark. So with regards to that, a lot of emphasis and money spent and focused on, on recovery, academic recovery for students, and what kinds of things have you done in, in APS to, to address student learning gaps and try to accelerate students with during the pandemic, the learning loss?
Rico Munn (10:57):
Yeah. We identified what we call our resiliency and recovery plan. And in that plan, we identified a set of assurances for our community around what they could expect from us and utilize both our general fund dollars and ESSER dollars to try and meet those assurances. And so there were sets of universal things. So for example, the availability of high dosage tutoring for all students, but then a second layer on top of that for students that have tier two and tier three of increased interventions and increased tutoring as one example. One of our universal assurances was to try and address some of the social and emotional gaps that were created during the pandemic. So we engage with a company called Playworks across all of our elementary schools to help kids learn how to do some of the social things, how to play at recess with each other, how to resolve conflict nicely, and how to take some of those lessons back into the classroom. And so we have a mix of those universal supports and targeted supports, and then also dollars that we are allocating directly to schools based upon their high need students for them to then evaluate their own population and figure out what are the best interventions that we can put in place on the ground.
Dr. Chris Balow (12:17):
Great. So tutoring, that’s fantastic. How was it to find tutors to find enough tutors with our current teacher shortage across the country?
Rico Munn (12:29):
Well, I mean, your question presumes the answer, right?
Dr. Chris Balow (12:32):
Yes. Well, I thought maybe you had a solution.
Rico Munn (12:36):
No, no. I mean, look, workforce challenges are tremendous. We have a mix of kinds of traditional tutoring entities and companies, and then also some online ones which allow us to, as you can imagine, tap into a broader pool of people. And so really working with those companies and, and a range of companies to provide those opportunities is the way we’re attacking it.
Dr. Chris Balow (13:01):
Great. So some private sector options and, and online options. Gotcha. Yes. Very good. You mentioned SCL, I’ve never heard of Playworks. I’ll have to check that out. That’s an area that I’ve done a lot of research and work in over the years. And as a school psychologist, I’ve read a lot recently about student, not only the social emotional but just behavior management, that kids have seemed to have lost or forgotten some of their behavior management. Have you noticed that in your district?
Rico Munn (13:38):
Yeah, I think we’ve seen that nationally and, and we’re no different than that, we talk about it in terms of students being dysregulated. And really trying to build up their skills of regulating themselves so that they know how to both manage themselves, everything for endurance, just sitting in their seat for a full class and reading a full chapter and all those skills to just how do you interact with individuals on a daily basis and resolve those conflicts?
Dr. Chris Balow (14:11):
Awesome. One of the things I read was about your, to provide mental health support, kids not only with dysregulation of behavior but also emotionally and dealing with trauma that many kids have experienced. So tell us about your partnership with Hazel health.
Rico Munn (14:33):
Yeah. And we’re really excited about that partner, but we’re, if I can be really excited about the partnership we have with the community of Aurora, going back 2018, we were able to pass a mill levy override that allowed significant increases in fundings to support our mental health structure. So going into the 19–20 school year, we were able to hire significant number of mental health professionals and also start significant mental health training for all of our staff, as it turned out, of course, by the end of that school year, we were using those skills and deploying those people in very good, different ways. And coming into a 20–21 school year, even though we had significant resources around that still the need outstripped our resources. So we began to look for some external partners and, and entities like Hazel health, where students can access, almost immediately online, counseling and support to make sure that they have that immediate opportunity that immediate access, and while our in-person or on the ground people, or may have higher caseloads or may not have the immediate availability to see those students, that they always have the option of connecting with a professional around their needs.
Dr. Chris Balow (15:50):
That’s super interesting. So students can just simply self select and go online and meet with a mental health professional?
Rico Munn (16:02):
Dr. Chris Balow (16:03):
Wow. Is there any limitation to that? Like how many students can access it? Is there like a referral process or how does that work?
Rico Munn (16:13):
Yeah, I mean, obviously you can’t have every student in the district doing it once, right? So that there’s certain load limitations. But that is not a realistic challenge or limitation. We obviously want students to get the help they need. And so some of those may be episodic and some of them maybe need for longer term interventions, longer term therapy. And so really the key is about us working with Hazel and working with parents and families to identify, once we’ve addressed the immediate issue, what’s the next step, and how do we then appropriately respond to that student need?
Dr. Chris Balow (16:53):
That’s fantastic. Way back in the day, this would’ve been back in about 1989, my former district, I used to work near Minneapolis, and we did something similar. And case management was really important to try to make sure that the outside mental health people were talking with the school, mental health people and the teachers and so forth to kind of really do what we call then wraparound services. So it’s a great opportunity. So I really applaud your work there. It’s so needed.
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Dr. Chris Balow (18:54):
Speaking about mental health, I’ve been doing a lot of research lately. There’s been a lot of studies out about teachers’ mental health, not only our students, but our teachers are really struggling. In fact, the clinical depression rate is two times the regular population — or non-teachers, I should say. How do you see that playing out in APS?
Rico Munn (19:23):
Well, I think that’s very accurate of the picture that we’re seeing in our system. Going back to our prior conversation, the Hazel health option is also available to our staff. And then we also had our traditional staff resources for the employee assistance program. For EAP and other structures. We’ve tried to do a couple of things. One, to make sure we have resources in place like those. Two, to make sure that we can remind staff about the availability of those resources and that it’s okay to access them. That’s an appropriate thing. And that that’s something that, and that everybody in some way is feeling across society through some of the collective trauma that we have experienced. And then I think third is to try to bring online what I would call nontraditional resources, different ways of supporting staff. So one of the things that we did, we partnered with the city to provide free rec center passes for all our staff, for people to have the opportunity to go work out. We know that physical wellness can also connect very importantly and support strong mental health. And so those kinds of things, and trying to be creative and providing those additional resources, we’ve tried to do.
Dr. Chris Balow (20:55):
Yeah. Awesome. What’s your sense about folks accessing these resources? Are they taking advantage?
Rico Munn (21:03):
They’re certainly being utilized. But it’s tough to figure out what is the right utilization level.
Dr. Chris Balow (21:08):
Rico Munn (21:09):
You want people to utilize them. You also hope at a certain level, people don’t necessarily need to. And so what’s the right number? I couldn’t tell you, but just making sure that it’s available and people know about it is important. And we try to track on the backend things like staff attendance will obviously be doing a kind of a climate survey checking in on our staff to see how they’re feeling and all those other mechanisms to just generally check on the wellbeing of our staff.
Dr. Chris Balow (21:41):
Yeah. Awesome. I wrote an extensive white paper recently on and dug into the literature on teacher attrition, all the, the factors, the causal factors and solutions and the mental health piece is really playing into teacher attrition. A recent study, 55% of teachers are thinking about leaving the profession. And wow. I mean, we already have a teacher shortage, particularly in many subject matter areas. And if we lost a significant number of teachers, I don’t know what we would do.
Rico Munn (22:19):
Yeah. I’d say that. The thing that keeps me up at night right now are the workforce issues.
Dr. Chris Balow (22:24):
Rico Munn (22:24):
Going forward, what we’re seeing in every industry, it seems to me, is a shift in the work, an interest in a demand and a different kind of work and more flexibility in your work. And that’s something that’s very difficult to envision in K12. And what that looks like. And so that is putting a strain on what was already a shortage of professionals in our space. So we are thinking very much about that. We’re trying to be creative and different responses to that, but I think it’s a growing issue for K12 education.
Dr. Chris Balow (23:03):
Yes. It really is. I presented to a large group of superintendents, the Urban Superintendents Association of America, and went through this research. And I think to a person, they said, this is our number one problem. So it’s a little scary. I also read that 38% of principals are considering leaving as well. Have you noticed any of that in your district where your admins are saying, and the stresses on building principals is magnitudes higher?
Rico Munn (23:39):
Yeah. I just don’t let them leave.
Dr. Chris Balow (23:42):
Good for you.
Rico Munn (23:45):
No, I think look across the board, principals, teachers, front office clerks, assistants, janitors across the sector. It’s a challenge right now. And what we know to do is try to compensate our people appropriately. And as we can with the market, try to make sure people know that they are valued and supported, and to genuinely do that. And because obviously the first line of defense is a high retention rate. And then to be a place that is a place of destination for people to want to come and work is incredibly important.
Dr. Chris Balow (24:29):
So you must have read my research white paper, because those are some key points, that definitely is creating that positive culture and climate and giving people lots of support. It’s fantastic. So I also noted that you opened two new magnet schools this year. Tell our listeners about your new magnet schools.
Rico Munn (24:51):
Well, we’re slated to open them in August.
Dr. Chris Balow (24:54):
Rico Munn (24:54):
We are in year zero for both, kind of building and designing and developing. We’re very excited about that potential. We recognized what our community was telling us: they wanted more choice. But interestingly enough, our community said we really want more district-run choice. It’s a community that has not expressed kind of a large interest in charters per se, which of course some of that. But they say, look, we really want more schools run by the district to provide some unique and different offerings. And so, as part of our blueprint APS process, we repurposed some of our existing schools to be magnet schools going into next year. One is the Clara Brown Entrepreneurial Academy. And the second is the Charles Burrell Visual and Performing Arts. And Clara Brown will be, when fully built out, at K eight. Charles Burrell will be a K-12, with the high school component of it being still a comprehensive high school but having a visual and performing arts pathway embedded in it.
Dr. Chris Balow (26:03):
Awesome. And what’s the response been pretty positive?
Rico Munn (26:07):
It’s been really positive. We have wait lists for both schools. We have a lot of community excitement around us doing something very different. And we’re excited to see that growth and development.
Dr. Chris Balow (26:23):
Fantastic. And that’s one of the things parents are looking for. They’re looking for innovative options. And so you’re responding to the market needs as they say any further plans for additional magnet schools or special programs in the future.
Rico Munn (26:40):
Yeah. It’s all part of that blueprint APS plan, but what we’ve identified, we divided the district into seven geographic regions, really just for the sake of having some clear and bite size planning structures. And the goal is to really have a specialization within each geographic region. And the idea is that those specializations will be anchored by a magnet program of some kind. But then also that across that region, there will be a higher degree of offerings and opportunities because the magnets are also tied to what’s happening in our city in that particular space. So for example, one of the reasons that the Charlesburg all performing arts campuses in that part of the city is because that’s also where the city of Aurora is planning its fine arts district and performing arts district. We have our Fox theater there. In our downtown Aurora visual and performing arts center and a lot of other entities, there’s a lot of that energy in the area. So we wanna do similar things across our entire city.
Dr. Chris Balow (27:45):
Fantastic. So will you be attempting with these magnet programs to pull in students from other districts? Is that an option for folks, or are you gonna keep it kind of for your students living in your geographic boundaries?
Rico Munn (28:01):
Well, it’s an option. Colorado is an open enrollment state. So if we have space, people are welcome. I think in our enrollment preferences for the schools, there’s plenty of preference for people who live within the APS boundaries. But it doesn’t preclude others.
Dr. Chris Balow (28:21):
Okay. So it’d be a bonus. I would assume if, if you had open, you could bring other students in really, really helps financial sustainability.
Rico Munn (28:31):
Well, I think our main goal is to make sure that our own students want to stay within our boundaries.
Dr. Chris Balow (28:39):
Absolutely. Absolutely. It’s much easier to retain than to try to attract. I was talking with the assistant superintendent of Dallas, and they created six magnet schools. And they’ve attracted, I think, 3,000 new students to their district while still meeting the needs of their own students. What a great thing to do. So let’s see here. What else could I ask you about? We talked about staff. I think we’ve covered the main things I wanted to cover with you today, Mr. Munn, but one of the things that I’m curious about is you’ve been a superintendent now for almost 10 years with APS.
Rico Munn (29:28):
This is my ninth school year.
Dr. Chris Balow (29:30):
Ninth school year. So that’s amazing longevity for a superintendent, and so that’s a testament to you. What three pieces or several pieces of advice would you have for a new superintendent to support their success and longevity. What’s your secret sauce, Rico?
Rico Munn (29:50):
Yeah, I don’t think there’s much of a secret. I think, look, you have to do these jobs. It seems to me with a deep commitment to serving your particular community. Whenever I hear people talking about wanting to be the best school district in the country or the best school district in the state, that fundamentally makes no sense to me, cause it’s not like I can pick up my school district and move it or something. I have to be the best at serving my kids in this community. So you have to stay very connected to the community. You have to try to listen to the community, and you have to try to lead, because leadership isn’t necessarily about making the easy choice or about making people happy, but it’s about really, truly understanding what the needs and expectations are, moving things towards those ends.
Dr. Chris Balow (30:47):
Being a superintendent is really kind of a lonely job. I have friends who are superintendents. What do you do to deal with the stress and the pressure? Because I view, as superintendent, you’ve got things coming at you from all different states. How do you manage that stress and keep yourself centered?
Rico Munn (31:10):
Well, I think look, everything in life it’s about trying to have your priorities straight. And I always tell people I’ve got three priorities: my faith, my family, and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Dr. Chris Balow (31:20):
Very good. Very good. Great, great advice for, for all of us Rico. I really appreciate that. Well, we’ve come to the end of our podcast interview, but before I let you go, I would like you to participate in the fast five, where I ask you five quick questions and you tell the audience your answer. So what is your favorite family vacation?
Rico Munn (31:50):
Whatever makes my wife and kids happy is whatever the current favorite is then I guess.
Dr. Chris Balow (31:58):
Okay. Okay. Sounds good. What makes you laugh the most?
Rico Munn (32:03):
Dr. Chris Balow (32:04):
Your kids. Did you ever have a nickname growing up?
Rico Munn (32:09):
Rico’s my nickname
Dr. Chris Balow (32:11):
Oh, oh, okay. There you go. So, it definitely stuck. What’s one of your hobbies you enjoy?
Rico Munn (32:19):
I do a form of self-defense called Krav Maga.
Dr. Chris Balow (32:23):
You’ll have to — what is that?
Rico Munn (32:26):
It’s developed by Israeli special forces, and it’s a form of mixed martial arts.
Dr. Chris Balow (32:35):
All right. Interesting. Interesting. All right. Let’s see here. Last question. If you could share a meal with a person from history living or dead, who would that be?
Rico Munn (32:51):
Dr. Chris Balow (32:54):
Thurgood Marshall. Awesome. Awesome. Well, Rico Munn, superintendent of Aurora Public Schools. Thank you for spending time with us today here on Change Agents in K-12. I hope it’s been an enjoyable experience for you.
Rico Munn (33:07):
Chris, I appreciate the interest in APS and everything that we’re doing to serve our kids.
Thank you for listening to the Change Agents in K-12 podcast brought to you by SchoolMint. Find us on all major podcasts platforms, and make sure to subscribe so you never miss a show. See you next time.