Remaking Aurora

Schools experiment with universal mental health screenings

In a sunny office at Sixth Avenue Elementary School in Aurora, an upbeat school psychologist named Shannon Kishel tossed out questions to four third- and fourth-grade boys sitting around a table: when a student hurts or teases another student, how do you stand up for the victim?

At first, the answers were fairly predictable. One after the other, the boys either said they’d tell the bullies to stop or go to a teacher for help.

As the discussion deepened, the contradictory realities of childhood emerged. A soft-spoken boy in a white polo shirt asked, “But what if the adult doesn’t believe you?”

It was a good question, Kishel said, and she encouraged him to dig for an answer. He did just that.

“I would get proof from someone else or I would make the bully admit it,” he said.

All the boys in Kishel’s office were cooperative and easy-going. Based on the session alone, it would be hard to see them as anything but average boys: one talking about soccer, another about his trampoline, one wearing a Broncos t-shirt, one asking if Kishel had any more bite-sized Twix bars when she handed out treats at the end.

But the students were all selected for Kishel’s weekly group based on the outcomes of a universal mental health screening, a process that identifies students who are at risk for problems ranging from aggression to social isolation. All four were rated “extremely elevated” for various characteristics that could mean trouble down the road.

Mental health issues affect many Colorado students, causing problems such as disruptive behavior, anxiety and absenteeism that can hinder academic success. These problems also impact teachers, making their jobs harder. According to a 2011 survey of educators and school mental health professionals by the Colorado School Safety Resource Center, 59 percent of respondents said they needed assistance with students’ mental health needs.

But formal mental health screenings —  the kind being piloted at Sixth Avenue, and five other district schools — are rare in Colorado and nationally.

Among large districts, Boston Public Schools is one of the few that conducts them. Experts praise universal screening both for casting a wide net and enabling early intervention. But the screenings also raise questions for school districts, ranging from how to pay for them to whether they have the ability to obtain services for all students the screenings identify.

Despite the obstacles, interest appears to be growing. The Center Consolidated district plans to launch a universal screening program next fall and other school health leaders have taken notice as well.

Karina Delaney, coordinated school health manager for Adams 12, said, “It’s definitely a conversation I’m planning to have with our district.”

In the wake of the recent Arapahoe High School shooting, it’s hard not contemplate how things might have turned out differently if Karl Pierson had gotten mental health services long before he was capable of pulling the trigger. But while acts of school violence are all too familiar in Colorado, they are hardly the only reason to teach kids social-emotional skills like how to join a playground game, resist peer pressure or resolve an argument.

By incorporating social-emotional skills into the school day, Aurora administrators are hoping that they can head off problems before they start, creating healthier, more productive classrooms and ultimately higher student achievement.

“I am passionate about prevention,” said Jessica O’Muireadhaigh, the Aurora special education consultant who spearheaded the district’s screening program.

Helayne Jones, president and CEO of the Legacy Foundation, said Aurora is a perfect example of a district where leaders see the link between good mental health and academic success.

“We really applaud their work,” she said. “Some districts don’t see the connection yet.”

The Legacy Foundation has been a leading advocate for mental health services in schools. In November, the foundation distributed to all Colorado districts its new School Behavioral Health Services Framework, which offers strategies and tools for providing mental health services in schools. This month, the foundation announced $5,000 grants for mental health initiatives to five districts, including Aurora and Center, both of which will use the money for universal screening.

Reaching all kids, focusing on some

Aurora began its “Social Emotional Learning Pilot” in early 2013 after top administrators asked O’Muireadhaigh to develop a program to address students’ social emotional health. In addition to the universal screening, the pilot includes weekly lessons on social-emotional topics for all students from the Caring School Communities curriculum. All told, the program costs $27,000 per school.

Resources on mental health and universal screening

Illinois, which has detailed social-emotional learning standards and benchmarks for every grade, was one of O’Muireadhaigh’s models as she crafted the pilot program. But she wanted to go a step further and add the screening.

“They aren’t as systemic as we are,” she said.

Aurora’s six pilot schools use a “two-gate” screening system that uses two respected  tools. Teachers use the first, called the SSBD, about six to eight weeks into the school year to rank the top three “externalizers” and top three “internalizers” in their classrooms. Externalizers are students who show defiance, aggression or temper tantrums, while internalizers show anxiety, depression or withdrawal.

Teachers then use the BASC-BESS instrument to determine whether the six students identified by the first screening are in the “average,” “elevated” or “extremely elevated” range for various social-emotional issues. Typically, one or two of the original six students fall into the “extremely elevated” category and are flagged to participate in small intervention groups with Kishel or a school social worker. .

O’Muireadhaigh said about 30 students participate in small groups at five of the pilot schools, including Sixth Avenue, Sable, Vaughn and Altura elementary schools as well as Boston K-8. Jamaica Child Development Center, the only preschool in the pilot program, is the exception. There, only a few three- and four-year-olds participate in a small group because there is a major emphasis on social-emotional skills for all children throughout the school day.

In February, the students who have been meeting weekly in small groups since the fall will be assessed to see if they have made progress on their social-emotional skills. Those who still have significant struggles will be placed in new groups that use a different, more explicit curriculum.

Of the four boys Kishel worked with on that recent afternoon, there was one she suspected might need to remain in a small group after the February assessment. Though he had made an effort to participate in the session, he struggled with his words, and mostly parroted answers that other students had already given.

Other screening methods

While universal screenings that use evidence-based tools are lauded for identifying students, particularly internalizers, who need extra support, there are other ways to identify students who are having social, emotional or behavioral difficulties. In many districts, teams that include administrators, counselors, psychologists, social workers, special education staff and teachers, meet weekly to compare notes and create plans for struggling students.

For example, in Denver, a pilot mental health expansion pulls together staff to design individual programs for at-risk students. The district or staff at the 39 participating schools scans attendance and disciplinary data to identify struggling students. School staff then meet to discuss what risk factors might be at play for the student and what interventions can be effective.

“The mental health expansion is looking at this subgroup and trying to find the root cause,” said Steve Nederveld, who manages the the district’s mental health division. Those root causes can include “depression, family conflict, gang involvement, juvenile justice involvement, bullying.”

The expansion is, in part, the district’s response to last year’ school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary.

“[Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg’s] response to Sandy Hook was making sure our kids get our social emotional supports rather than more police,” said Eldridge Greer, the director of the mental health and assessment program.

Greer thinks Denver’s approach could be ground-breaking.

“I think it has the potential to be a profound shift,” Greer said. “Before this, schools really operated on a 19th century model of I’ll wait for students to come into my office.” There wasn’t a “good connection between behavior and therapeutic interventions.”

He also hopes it will transform student and parent perceptions of the district.

“The district is responding in a way that is not punitive,” Greer said.

Plans in Center

The biggest mental health problem in the 617-student Center school district is depression, said Katrina Ruggles, a counselor for the district. Students also struggle with divisive family relationships, divorce, substance abuse and dating violence. Nearly 92 percent of students in Center qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

And although the district has a partnership with San Luis Valley Mental Health to provide services two days a week, Ruggles said it’s not enough.

“We have a high at-risk population so we have to provide a lot of services that other districts don’t have to provide.”

And so the district is going a step further to universal screenings, with plans to select a screening this spring, launch it K-12 next fall and pilot it for three years.

“We understand there’s a really fundamental connection between your behavioral health, your physical health and your academic health,” said

Ruggles said some students — elementary school boys with ADHD, for example — are easily flagged for evaluations or services, but she believes there’s a subset of students who don’t always attract much attention though they may need it.

“Sometimes there are kids that slide under the radar and we’re missing those kids,” she said.

Jumping the inevitable hurdles

Universal screenings may make perfect sense to mental health professionals, but many people have never heard of them. That can make securing parent permission a thorny problem for school districts. There also may be concerns about the validity of screening tools, that kids will be unfairly stigmatized, or that schools have no business evaluating mental health in the first place.

“Schools are very leery to do it,” said Barb Bieber, school psychology consultant at the Colorado Department of Education. “So we’re hoping that Aurora will have some good outcomes from their work.”

In Center, Ruggles expects it may be a challenge to get parents on board.

“We’re going to have to make sure that parents are really informed about what we’re doing so it doesn’t feel intrusive,” she said.

So far, Karmin Braun, a second-grade teacher at Sixth Avenue Elementary, said she hasn’t fielded any parent concerns about the program.

In fact, just the opposite. She described how one little boy who would “break down and cry very easily if you redirected him” has made immense progress since he joined a small group in the fall. At a recent parent-teacher conference, the boy’s parents remarked on his improvement and said they were impressed with the program. Aurora’s screening program requires signed parent permission slips only for students who are flagged for small groups.

O’Muireadhaigh said that while individual students will likely show significant social-emotional growth within one school year, it will take at least three to five years for the district to see a more global student achievement effect.

“We’re kind of in our infancy and we’re still collecting the data,” she said.

Research on the subject suggests that aggregate academic gains are likely. According to a 2011 meta-analysis of universal social-emotional programs in schools, researchers not only found that students’ social-emotional skills, attitudes and behavior improved, they cited an 11 percentile-point gain in student achievement.

Finding the money

Perhaps one of the biggest questions about universal screening is funding, and not just funding for the screening tools themselves and training so teachers know how to use them. Experts say that screenings must be accompanied by services for students who are identified or they’re not worth doing.

“Funding is always a big issue,” said Jones. “Where [schools] cut…is often in all those areas that support the affective and social-emotional needs of students.”

That may be part of the reason that 29 Colorado districts applied for just five mental health grant awards from the Legacy Foundation. While Aurora’s grant will help purchase more social emotional learning materials, O’Muireadhaigh said the pilot’s costs, including the addition of 1.6 employees, is currently covered by the general fund budget.

In Center, Ruggles also expects administrators will have to rely on their general fund to help implement and sustain the screening program. She echoed other educators in saying there’s not a lot of grant funding available for mental health.

“We try to find it where we can and piece it together.”

 Offering alternatives

During the recent small group session in Kishel’s office, it became clear that social-emotional skills don’t always come naturally.

After the four boys watched a short video in which a boy pushed a girl while waiting in line, a boy in a blue shirt next to Kishel condemned the pushing: “You can’t push a girl. You can’t even touch girls,” he said.

When Kishel asked if it’s okay to push boys, the student responded without missing a beat.

“Yeah, you can push boys.” Another student added, “If they’re messing with you.”

Kishel was unphased, but urged the boys to think about peaceful solutions using words instead of aggression. Although the boy in the blue shirt proposed fighting another time or two, the group came up with several creative (and sometimes unrealistic) solutions to bullying, from befriending the bully to making a bully who teased a student about his clothes wear the same thing as the victim.

After the boys returned to their classroom, Kishel and O’Muireadhaigh acknowledged that students often default to solutions that might make sense in the rest of their lives.

Still, O’Muireadhaigh said of the boy in the blue shirt, “At the most basic level, he heard an alternative.”

'Nothing magic'

Stay the course: Struggling Aurora Central will not face drastic state-ordered changes

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Aurora Central High School has been labeled as failing by the state for five years.

Aurora Central High School will continue ongoing reforms but with help from a management company, avoiding more dire consequences for its chronic low performance over more than five years.

During a hearing Wednesday, the State Board of Education unanimously voted to allow staff to finalize a plan that will give the struggling school at least two more years to keep working on reforms rolled out this school year. The board will vote on the blueprint next month.

“There’s nothing magic about this recommendation,” Katy Anthes, Colorado’s education commissioner, told the board Wednesday. “It just takes an incredible amount of work and dedication. We think the staff members here have that dedication.”

The state department’s recommendations mirrored the district’s proposal, an outgrowth of the state’s approach of working with districts and schools facing state intervention to reach agreements before the accountability hearings.

Aurora Central’s last year of data showed declines in student performance. Attendance data presented Wednesday also has been going in the wrong direction. In the 2015-16 school year, daily attendance was 76.5 percent, significantly lower than the state average attendance rate of 93.2 percent.

But state officials told the board they saw the school’s culture improving, giving them hope the plan could lead to improvements. They also cited a rising graduation rate in the last school year.

“We believe a rigorous implementation of this plan can see rapid change in student achievement and growth,” Anthes said.

Aurora Central is the first large high school to face the state for possible sanctions after reaching its limit of years of low performance. The school enrolls about 2,100 students, of which 70 percent are still learning English as a second language.

Since the start of this school year, Aurora Central has been operating under innovation status, which gives it more autonomy from state and district rules.

Under the innovation plan, the school day at Central was extended, and the school was allowed to reject teachers the district wanted placed there and have more control over all staffing.

District and school officials Wednesday answered questions from board members about education for second language learners, serious attendance problems and their work to engage the community.

Rico Munn, superintendent of Aurora Public Schools, told board members that community support of the school had significantly increased in the last year, as seen by donations to the school and community organizations that are working with school staff.

Board member Pam Mazanec questioned Aurora officials about the amount of money from multiple grants they had already been provided for school reforms in the last four years and why they hadn’t produced good results.

School officials said money spent in the past on teacher training was not followed with help to use the new techniques in the classroom. They said the number of instructional coaches at the school this year has significantly increased in an effort to change that.

“I don’t believe the systems and structures were in place,” said Jennifer Pock, assistant principal at Central. “There was not a time for teachers to collaborate. The support is very different this year to carry on the work that began.”

The new wrinkle in the state improvement plan is the addition of a management company, Boston-based Mass Insight. The company’s work will be in partnership with the district, but exact details of what the company would be in charge of are still being determined.

An official from Mass Insight said Wednesday the company intends to question the district and suggest what to focus on or change.

The school district will be required to provide the state updates about progress at least once a year.

staying the course

Why state education officials think Aurora Central’s latest reforms deserve more time

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia

State education officials believe Aurora Central High School should get at least two more years to see its latest reforms through — with some help.

Last year, Aurora Public Schools went to the state and won innovation status for the struggling school. That gave the 2,100-student school more autonomy from certain rules and laws. Teachers could be hired and dismissed by school officials. The school day was lengthened and programming could stray from what the district was doing.

Some parts of the plan have been a challenge for the school, however, district officials acknowledge in documents.

Many teachers were new and unprepared for the work. The school has struggled to hire for certain positions. And teachers don’t have enough planning time to make student advisory periods “meaningful.”

Still, state officials evaluated the school’s progress and found hope that the plan still could lead to better student performance, and also that it has broad community support.

When state officials and Aurora leaders appear before the state Board of Education on Wednesday, they will present a plan to continue the school’s innovation plan while handing over management of some pieces of it to a Boston-based company. The board must approve the plan for it to move forward.

“Knowing that Aurora Central is a complicated and challenging environment, and knowing that their data is low and they’ve not demonstrated a lot of progress, we believe there are components on that innovation plan that have promise if implemented well and if led well,” said Peter Sherman, executive director for school and district performance at the Colorado Department of Education. “We do believe the management partners piece is key.”

State officials were more critical of the plan in earlier feedback to the district, citing concerns about an aggressive timeline, questions about school leadership and more.

Aurora Public Schools would not make anyone available for an interview to discuss the plan, and the district’s written responses to emailed inquiries left many questions unanswered.

At a recent board meeting, district officials presented a brief update on Central’s accountability plan and said they were confident about the recommendation and the progress at Central.

“We feel that we’ve been aggressive in trying to turn around Central,” Lamont Browne, executive director of autonomous schools for Aurora, told the school board.

About 80 percent of Aurora Central’s more than 2,100 students are identified as low-income based on qualifying for free or reduced price lunches. About 70 percent of students are English language learners, and 12 different languages are spoken.

Less than half of the students at Central graduate within four years. Chronic absenteeism is a “significant problem for two-thirds of all students,” according to the documents the district submitted to the state. The number of students meeting expectations based on state testing has consistently been lower than most schools in the district and in the state.

The plan presented to the state last year for increased autonomy intended to address the school’s issues by creating competency-based learning, which allows students to earn credit as they prove they’ve learned a standard. That would give students more flexibility to earn credit and get lessons that are personalized.

The model has been piloted this year at Central in a limited way during one period of the day for ninth graders. Earlier in the year, Browne said moving to the model was slowed because there were too many new teachers and they needed more training. Now, the school has created a group to look at how to continue the roll-out of the model to 10th graders next year.

The school’s plan also called for a work group to address attendance issues. But according to the documents submitted to the state, the group had to narrow its focus to a certain group of students because of limited “manpower.”

Teachers were supposed to have more joint planning time, but were also asked to do home visits to increase parent engagement and run advisory periods that would allow adults to address students’ non-academic issues, including attendance problems.

Getting teachers and students to buy into the advisory periods has been a problem, the district’s documents state.

The documents also include some plans for adjusting work to address the current challenges.

For instance, to make advisory periods more meaningful, the school will change the schedule so they are only held twice a week. The school also will provide more training to teachers so they can plan those periods.

To improve the rollout of the competency-based model, leaders plan to increase the amount of training for teachers, among other strategies.

“(Professional Development) sessions will involve creating competencies for each standard, as well as coming to a building-wide consensus of what competency looks like based on the demands of each standard,” the document states.

The district cites having more ninth grade students on track for graduation as evidence that tweaks will make a difference. The recommendation cites some improvement on decreasing the dropout rate and increasing the graduation rate this year.

But results from schools that increase school-level autonomy have not been promising in the past. A report last year from the state found that only three of 18 failing schools across the state granted “innovation status” at the time had made enough progress to make it off of the list of schools facing action for low-performance. The findings called into question whether the autonomy granted made a difference for schools with such low performance.

But in the state recommendation for Central, other possible actions for the school — including closing it or converting it to a charter — were not deemed possible for now.

“Given the size of Aurora Central and the community support behind the current reforms being enacted, the Department recommends full implementation of the innovation zone for at least two years before considering conversion to a charter school,” the recommendation states. “CDE does not recommend school closure, first and foremost, because there is not capacity at other district high schools to serve the 2,172 Aurora Central students.”

The plan also proposes a management role for Mass Insight, a Boston-based company that already has been working under contract with some Aurora schools and helped gather input to draft the original innovation plans. Browne said at the board meeting this month that details of what the company would do are not completely worked out yet.

Documents state the company now would “focus on project management and performance management for innovation implementation.”

“Mass Insight’s responsibility is to support implementation of the innovation plan for Central so it is not directing action at all it’s just supporting the innovation plan,” Browne said. “What that looks like next year is still to be determined.”