New Arrivals

New programs for teen parents on the way in Aurora

The Aurora school district's Early Beginnings building on the campus of Jamaica Child Development Center.

Over the next 12 months, pregnant and parenting teens in Aurora will see big changes in local educational options for themselves and their young children.

These include Tuesday’s opening of the new $2 million “Early Beginnings” center, which will provide up to 72 child care and preschool slots for the babies and young children of teen parents enrolled in Aurora Public Schools. The district is also replacing its underutilized teen parent outreach program with a new mobile team of advocates.

In addition, a new charter school serving pregnant and parenting teens in Aurora and northeast Denver is set to open in the fall of 2015. That school, called New Legacy Charter High School, will accommodate up to 100 high school students—teen fathers included—plus 70 young children at its on-site child care center to be run by Mile High Montessori. While the exact location has yet to be determined it is likely to be in the 80010 zip code.

Quick facts on Early Beginnings center
Replaces:
      District-run child care center at William Smith High School

Location:

      On the campus of Jamaica Child Development Center, 820 N. Jamaica St.

Includes:

      6 classrooms with up to 72 spots for infants, toddlers and preschoolers of teen parents in the district.

Project cost:

      $2 million

Funders:

      Donor-advised fund at the Denver Foundation, Foundation for Educational Excellence, Gates Family Foundation, Temple Hoyne Buell Foundation and Qualistar Colorado

First day:

      Tues., August 5

Grand opening:

      Wed., August 20, 5:30-6:30 p.m.

Administrators involved in the development of the new facilities and programs say the offerings reflect the need for more centrally-located facilities and responsive interventions to ensure pregnant or parenting teens stay in school and ultimately graduate.

“We have so many young mothers and young fathers,” said Deputy Superintendent William Stuart. “They need opportunities to remain engaged in school.”

Indeed, statistics shows that teen pregnancy and parenthood don’t bode well for school success. According to a brief from the advocacy group Colorado Youth Matter, 53 percent of Colorado young women who gave birth in 2011 didn’t finish high school or obtain a GED. In addition, nearly one-third of female students who dropped out of school cite pregnancy or parenthood as the primary reason for their decision.

“What are they going to do if they have no high school education?” asked Shirley Algiene, principal of Denver’s Florence Crittenton High School, which serves pregnant and parenting teens. “How are they going to take care of the baby?”

Need despite declining teen birth rates

Perhaps ironically, the development of Early Beginnings, New Legacy and the new teen parent outreach model over the last few years has coincided with gradual decreases in teen birth rates. In Colorado, the teen birth rate among youth ages 15-19 dropped 56 percent since 1991.

While advocates for teen pregnancy prevention herald such declines, they say there are still plenty of teenagers having babies, particularly in certain counties and demographic groups.

“It’s still not going down across the board,” said Lisa Olcese, executive director of Colorado Youth Matter.

For example, in Adams County, where part of the Aurora school district lies, there were 44.5 births per 1,000 females 15-19 during 2010-2012, compared to the Colorado average of 28.4.

Jennifer Douglas, the founder and principal of New Legacy, has drilled even deeper into local data as she’s planned the new school. She found that while there has been an overall decrease in the number of teens giving birth over the last decade in four zip codes in northeast Denver and northwest Aurora, the numbers actually increased slightly in 2013. A total of 182 teens, ages 14-18, had babies that year, up from 169 in 2012.

“Yes, there really is a need,’” said Douglas, who was formerly the director of new school development at the Colorado League of Charter Schools.

“At this point, even with the drop [in teen pregnancy] there are still of hundreds of students giving birth that need an educational option to help them finish school.”

Dwindling enrollment

For decades, Aurora’s “Young Parenting Program” was housed at William Smith High School, a small alternative high school that for many years was centrally located where Peoria Elementary School is now.

Enrollment by teen parents gradually dwindled after the school moved to a new building on the district’s east side in 2004 and a few years later adopted an expeditionary learning focus. At the end of last year, only three children of teen parents were enrolled in the 40 slots available at the school’s on-site nursery.

“Transportation was a big issue,” said Anita Walker, the district’s early childhood coordinator. “It was so far east it was challenging for parents to get to.”

In contrast, the Early Beginnings center is closer to the heart of the district on the same campus as Jamaica Child Development Center. It’s also less than a mile from Central High School, one of the district’s comprehensive high schools.

“A significant number of young parents reside in the north and northwest part of our district,” noted Stuart who helped oversee the former Young Parenting Program when he was principal of William Smith 15 years ago.

Administrators say the new center, which has two infant rooms, two toddler rooms and two preschool rooms, may not fill up immediately with children of teen parents, but the new four-member mobile outreach team is working on recruitment. Operating under the moniker “Young Parent Support Program,” the team includes two student engagement specialists, a health care specialist and a child care specialist.

The engagement specialists, who Stuart said may go door to door at times, will help pregnant or parenting teens re-connect with some type of educational program, whether it’s a traditional high school, New Legacy, an online high school or an alternative program focused on obtaining a GED or entering community college.

“We will reach far more young parents through the new format,” said Stuart.

In addition to the mobile team, there will be a family liaison and a nurse serving the campus where Early Beginnings is located, and eventually maybe a mental health professional as well.

Special schools for teen parents

Douglas first got the idea for New Legacy more than a decade ago when she visited Passages Charter School in Montrose. She was impressed with the school, which served pregnant and parenting teens, and realized that if the need existed in a small community like Montrose, it probably also existed in the much larger north Aurora and Denver region.

While Denver already has Florence Crittenton High School in the city’s southwest quadrant, Algiene is well aware that its quite a trek for some students. The school’s 130 high schoolers come from Denver and all corners of the metro area, including Aurora, Northglenn, and Jefferson County.

Algiene said three-quarters of her students rely on public transportation, facing the daily challenge of toting babies, diaper bags, back packs and strollers on buses or trains.

“I know it’s an issue to get over here,” she said. “I’m glad Aurora is opening up something.”

Coincidentally, Florence Crittenton will also be getting a new building next year, right across the street from its current location. The new space will include a school-based health center, room for 250 high school students and an on-site child care facility that will serve children from 6 weeks to four years old. (The school’s current child care facility only goes up to three years old.)

Despite the burst of new facilities coming over the next year, there’s a sense among the various administrators that the programs are complementary and will help fill a chronic gap. Douglas said she appreciates the new supports APS officials are putting into place for teen parents.

“I think the district recognized that that’s been a need and I’m really excited that they’re doing so much now,” she said. “We’re not in competition; we’re just options for students.”

For their part, APS administrators believe the planned opening of New Legacy next year coordinates nicely with their new programming.

“We want to demonstrate to our community that we have a commitment to these young students,” said Stuart.

This article originally misspelled the name of Aurora Deputy Superintendent William Stuart. We apologize for the error.

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.