The 40,000-student Aurora, Colo., district is in its first year of fully implementing a revamped organizational structure designed to encourage more support for schools and educators and to encourage lifelong learning among students and teachers. Chief Academic Officer John Youngquist, who has spent a career in education that spans nearly all levels, said the new system splits the district into five P-20 community clusters designed to foster closer cooperation and partnerships and to be more responsive in providing support and resources. The P-20 refers to the district’s work encompassing all levels of education from preschool, to students seeking college credits, to educators working on advanced degrees.
Mr. Youngquist has been a high school teacher, a middle school counselor, an elementary school principal, and an area superintendent. He has worked for a national educational foundation, and in higher education with principal-training programs. Since he took the Aurora job in 2013, that breadth of experience, he said, is proving to be very valuable in his role as a CAO.
Education Week Contributing Writer Michelle R. Davis recently spoke with Mr. Youngquist about this new organizational structure, its impact on schools, and how it is shaping his job.
How does this new organizational structure benefit the district and affect your job?
We have five P-20 learning communities, supported by five P-20 learning community directors, each of them supervising about 10 schools, and each of them leading cross-functional support teams that are representative of the resources we provide for teachers and principals.
While I’m the CAO for Aurora public schools, I am also the head of our division of equity and learning, which includes the supervision of the English-language-acquisition department, student services, including exceptional student services, health services for students, mental health and counseling, and our gifted and talented program. I also supervise the area that we call teaching and learning, which includes professional learning, and ed tech, early-childhood education, library services, and educator effectiveness.
That seems like an extremely wide range of responsibilities.
The interest for me was in being able to engage one voice with my director team around all of this work. The organization of it was very important to me so that we’re able to provide services to students, teachers, and principals that are aligned, and to have a common voice in regard to the content of the work.
How are you able to implement district goals and strategies as the CAO?
Part of our superintendent’s mantra in coming in is that our job is to accelerate learning for every student, every day. My role in that is to make sure that every learning experience is engaging and challenging and propels every young person to a successful future. This new structure allows me to really support the engagement of effective learning experiences in a pretty fluid way and in a responsive manner.
How does this new structure benefit students and schools?
We moved from a pretty traditional system of functions or initiative offices in the district, with principals and teachers needing to contact different offices to gain access to resources. Now, the teacher or principal calls one person—the director—and that director has at their fingertips every function. Those functional representatives are sitting together and working together and know each other’s work so they’re able to really support people in a manner that is aligned and consistent. All indicators are that something special is happening on these cross-functional teams.
Explain more specifically your role in all this.
I’m looking through the system to ensure that our three priorities this year that we’ve selected as a division are coming into play. They relate to engagement of equity in learning; educator effectiveness; and the alignment of standards, curricular resources, and assessment. My responsibility is to have a view on all of this work, not just through the directors and program directors, but importantly at the school site. About a third of my week is spent in classrooms to see what is happening at the moment between students and teachers.
What attracted you to this job?
I came to this role because I saw a superintendent I would be learning things from, who was going to allow us to create structural shifts to get resources closer to the classroom. I saw the opportunity to develop a team of talented individuals who would be able to lead. We’ve created those significant shifts. I’m excited about the team we have at the district and division level, and we’ve been able to see elements of our vision proving to be true through our structure. What we need to do now is really ensure that we’re getting the resources to teachers, [and] that we’re responsive to teachers.
Coverage of personalized learning and systems leadership in Education Week and its special reports is supported in part by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the March 18, 2015 edition of Education Week as Q&As: Challenges and Responsibilities for CAOs