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.”

Lease for scholarships

Aurora Public Schools, CSU online degree program hammering out details of new partnership

PHOTO: Seth McConnell/The Denver Post

Seven months after voters backed the project as part of a $300 million bond package, Aurora Public Schools and Colorado State University are negotiating terms of an unusual partnership that involves swapping building space for scholarships and other services.

Under the proposed deal, Aurora Public Schools would spend about $8 million to construct a new building to house CSU’s Global Campus, an online degree program under the Colorado State University system. If board members approve the final deal, CSU-Global would pay the district not through conventional lease payments, but in some combination of full-ride scholarships, discounted tuition for district graduates or teachers, and staff training.

Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn, who came up with the idea, views it as a chance to open another door to college for Aurora students, many of whom come from low-income families.

But some school board members have expressed skepticism about how many Aurora students will benefit, and one has raised questions about Munn’s position as CSU board member.

For the project to even be included on last fall’s bond question, state law had to change. After lobbying from APS officials, lawmakers did just that, allowing for bond-financed projects to build not just school district buildings but also buildings to lease to higher education institutions.

Aurora Public Schools then included the project in its bond package, which is also paying for two new school buildings, fixes to existing buildings and technology upgrades.

CSU-Global currently pays $500,000 per year to lease office space near the Denver Tech center, in the south suburbs.

“What we are doing right now is paying a landlord,” said CSU-Global president Becky Takeda-Tinker. “But we thought if we could keep the money in Colorado, and inside the public sector, it makes a lot of sense.”

Plenty of uncertainties remain. While the district has hired an architect, a site has not yet been determined. The initial proposed site, on vacant land the district owns near William Smith High School on Airport Boulevard, may not be available because of federal easements on the property. Munn said officials are considering about five additional sites.

As part of the deal, the district will have to set a lease amount based on market rates and the services the district receives must be worth that amount. But since a location hasn’t been set, officials aren’t yet sure how much the deal will be worth. The terms continue to change, Munn said, in part, because a location for the new building hasn’t been finalized.

Questions and concerns about the partnership came up at an Aurora school board meeting in December, when some board members said they were learning for the first time that students would not be able to enroll at CSU-Global directly after high school.

Because CSU-Global is set up to serve non-traditional students, and because state officials didn’t want the school to compete with existing schools and community colleges, the school only takes transfer students who already have more than 12 credits, unless they’re from outside Colorado.

At the meeting, board president Amber Drevon questioned Munn about how many students might benefit from such a scholarship if they have to go out on their own first.

“I thought we were trying to reach the students that wouldn’t have these opportunities otherwise,” Drevon said. “But they are going to have to go spend that money or get scholarships first before they even have the opportunity to enroll in CSU-Global. That probably will not help a lot of kids we were trying to reach in the first place.”

Munn responded that even so, the thought of a portion of a four-year degree at an affordable price would be used as motivation for students.

“What concerns me is that you’ll lose them,” Drevon said.

“I appreciate that, but I think the challenge is we’re already losing them,” Munn responded.

Drevon did not return messages requesting comment for this story.

Early draft documents from July 2015 estimated that about 200 Aurora students per year could potentially benefit from scholarships or discounted tuition at CSU-Global. But Munn said the number of students who will benefit will depend on issues still to be resolved, including figuring out how many services the college will need to provide or whether the program prioritizes students who qualify for federal Pell grants or students studying a particular career program.

He said conversations are underway to see if money can be raised to help students pay for the credits they would need to earn at a community college or elsewhere before transferring to CSU-Global.

Board member Eric Nelson also raised alarm in December about Munn’s status as a governing board member for the CSU system. Munn became board chair just over a month ago.

“To me it seems the biggest beneficiary here is you, currying political favor with large CSU donors and other CSU board members at the expense of APS and our own district and student needs,” Nelson wrote to Munn in December.

Nelson said last week that his concerns haven’t changed.

Munn said he has disclosed both positions, has removed himself from all board votes or discussions at CSU about the proposed deal and is not at the negotiating table, though he will be making final recommendations on behalf of the Aurora school district.

Other board members are unconcerned about Munn’s two roles.

“I really don’t worry about it,” said board member Monica Colbert. “Because of the format CSU-Global offers, they’re the right ones to offer services to our students, regardless of Rico’s role.”

Munn says the clear goal of the partnership is to increase the district’s college going rate, and he said CSU-Global addresses some of the issues Aurora graduates cite in not going to college, such as not having the ability or desire to move away from their community, or the need to work while going to school.

According to a report from the Colorado Department of Higher Education, about 42 percent of the district’s graduates went on to college in 2015, which is lower than the state’s overall college-going rate of 56.5 percent.

If the same Aurora students are going to college, but just changing which school they go to, then the partnership will not have been a success, Munn said.

Michele Moses, professor of educational foundations and policies at the University of Colorado, Boulder School of Education, said that she believes the proposal could increase college access, but that the district should question what an online-only college could provide that other colleges can’t, given the overall bad track record of online schools, particularly with at-risk students.

“It seems the question really is, ‘Is the investment that this is going to take for them, is that going to be worth the benefit, given that we have all of these concerns right off the bat?’” Moses said. “If the partnership with CSU-Global is seen as one piece as the larger puzzle of college access, then maybe, why not?”

Munn said he expects to have the major pieces of the deal in place to be able to sign a letter of intent this fall. And work on the building should be able to start this winter so the building could be ready next year.

“We know how it can benefit students and we know different ways it can benefit students,” Munn said. “Now it’s about using the resources that we have to structure it in a way that makes the most sense. I think we’re very close.”

A new responsibility

In first for Aurora, charter school to run center for special education students

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

When Rocky Mountain Prep replaces Fletcher Community School in Aurora, the charter school will become the first in the district to operate a center for students with special needs.

As a district-run school, Fletcher for years has operated a regional program for students with autism. After the district decided last year to phase out the low-performing school and replace it with a charter school, conversations began about the fate of the program.

“From the beginning we’ve been really open and consistently stated that we would be excited to take it on if that’s what the district felt was best,” said James Cryan, CEO of Rocky Mountain Prep. He said serving all students including those with special needs fits into the charter’s mission.

Now, district and charter officials have worked out a transition plan that will give the charter school a year to prepare — including hiring a new director to oversee the special needs programs and research best practices — to take over the center by fall of 2019.

“We recognize the good work that’s been happening at that center program,” Cryan said. “It’s a program that’s serving students really well.”

The program at Fletcher this year served 21 students with autism that come from the surrounding neighborhoods. Aurora Public Schools has 17 autism center classrooms spread across the district at district-operated schools.

Aurora officials last year started exploring how charters can share the responsibility of serving students with special needs, but there was no strategy or process behind the work, said Jennifer Gutierrez, director of student services.

“This is our opportunity to do this,” Gutierrez said. “I anticipate that down the road if we have more charters to come aboard that this might be something we would explore.”

She said having the option of putting a program in a charter school could be especially useful in neighborhoods with crowded schools.

“We continue to have space issues,” Gutierrez said. “If we need a targeted clustered program in a certain neighborhood, it can be really hard to find classroom space.”

Rocky Mountain Prep began phasing in its program at Fletcher in the 2016-17 school year by operating the school’s preschool. In the fall, the charter will take over the kindergarten through second grade classrooms, and by the fall of 2019, the charter will run the entire school.

As Rocky Mountain Prep takes over more grades, the school will need to train teachers so they can help integrate students from the autism center when their individual plan calls for them to be in a general population classrooms some or most of the time.

Officials have yet to decide how much the charter school will lean on district services provided to district-run schools operating special needs programs, including teacher training, coaching and consultants.

The charter is also still looking for funding to hire the director that would oversee special services and research best practices for running the program.

That work will also include figuring out if the model of the center program will change or stay the same. Right now, center programs include classes labeled with a level one through three. In level three classrooms students spend a lot of time in general education classrooms while level one classrooms serve the students that need the most individual attention.

Teachers work together across the levels to help move students, if possible, from one level to the next — or, potentially, back to a general education classroom in their neighborhood school.

What will look different at the center program is that it will have the Rocky Mountain Prep model. That includes the uniforms, having students respond to their classmates with hand signals during group instruction and school-wide cheers or meetings instilling the core values that make up the charter’s model.

“We consider all of our students to be our scholars,” Cryan said. “We integrate all students into our model.”

It won’t be the first time the Denver-based elementary charter school network will be running a program for students with special needs.

In one of its Denver schools, Rocky Mountain Prep began operating a center program for students with multi-intensive severe special needs this year after the district asked them to.

In recent years, Denver Public Schools has asked its charter schools to operate special education centers in return for access to district real estate, part of a “collaboration compact.”

Across the country, research has shown charter schools do not educate a proportionate share of special education students. DPS says that within three years, it expects Denver to be the first city in the country to provide equitable access to charter schools for students with significant disabilities.

Cryan said Rocky Mountain Prep has learned general lessons from running the program in Denver that will help plan ahead for operating the program in Aurora, most importantly he said it’s why he asked for a planning year.

“We’ve also learned that having strong and consistent leadership really has an impact,” Cryan said. “And we really want to take time to learn best practices.”

District staff on Tuesday updated the Aurora school board on the overall transition of the school, including pointing to staff surveys that show school teachers and employees were happy with the changes.

District staff said the district plans to use the experience at Fletcher to create a process for any future school turnarounds involving changing a school’s management.