Roll call!

Aurora schools ramp up truancy interventions to keep students out of court

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Aurora Central High School students walk past the attendance office.

AURORA — Early Wednesday morning Aurora Central High School Principal Mark Roberts met with a student who has not attended a single day of school since the start of the school year.

Like he does with every student who is considered truant but wants to return to the classroom, he reviewed the student’s transcript and her options to either graduate or complete a GED program. He also spoke with the student and her mother about the student’s living conditions, her need to work, and her future goals.

“Each student has their struggle,” he said later in an interview. “It goes beyond just school. There are usually deeper issues attached to each student as to why they are not attending.”

Wednesday’s meeting is just one of many Roberts is likely to have this year.

As part of a recent reshuffling of districtwide resources and a renewed effort to address the social and emotional needs of students including their daily attendance, Aurora Public Schools has launched or expanded a series of initiatives to ensure more students are at their desks each day. That includes reaching out to students and their families early and often about the importance of attendance, identifying family needs and trying to meet them, and providing technology to parents to monitor their students classroom activities.

APS students who rack up more than four unexcused absences are considered truant. At Aurora Central High, the average student is likely to miss six times as many days, according to attendance data collected by the state. The school, mostly poor students of color with limited English skills, has the tenth highest truancy rate of any school in the entire state.

Reasons why students aren’t showing up for class at Aurora Central — or any school for that matter — include living in poverty, family trauma, or health-related issues, said Jocelyn Stephens, an APS administrator who oversees a cluster of schools including Aurora Central High.

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“You have to be present to learn,” Stephens said.

Making sure students are in class to learn is a critical task for the Aurora school system, which is entering its fourth year on the state’s accountability watch list. APS has two years to improve student test scores and its graduation rate or face state sanctions.

Like most school districts across the state, APS’s average daily attendance is stronger at its primary schools than at its secondary schools. About 96 percent of elementary school students are present each day, about 94 percent show up to their middle schools Monday through Friday, and 90 percent of high school students are there on time for first period.

But a closer look at individual schools’ average daily attendance shows grave disparities.

Aurora Quest K-8 has the highest daily attendance rate of all the suburb’s primary schools at 96.82 percent. That’s 11 points higher than the lowest, the Jamaica Child Development Center.

There’s about a three percentage point spread among APS’s middle schools, the lowest being 90 percent at North Middle School.

But the daily attendance gap is the widest at the high school level. At William Smith High, 93 percent of students show up regularly. At Aurora Central, barely 8 out of every 10 students are present each day.

While states are required to collect truancy data under federal law, each state may define truancy as it sees fit. That makes it difficult to compare attendance trends across state lines and identify solutions to a common problem.

But according to school attendance expert Hedy Chang, director of Attendance Works, the most common attendance data — average daily attendance and truancy percentages — masks what she considers a significant and neglected problem they call “chronic absenteeism.” That’s when a student misses more than 10 percent of the school year, or two days per month, according to Attendance Works.

Research completed by Chang and others has discovered a strong correlation between attendance and student achievement. The more school a student misses, Chang said, the more likely that student is to be behind grade level and to eventually dropout.

“Chances are very slim a chronically absent student will be as successful as his or her peers,” Chang said.

Among Attendance Works’ suggestions to combat chronic absenteeism: track both excused and unexcused absences and engage families early and often about the importance of perfect attendance. Further, schools should reward students and families for their daily participation not punish them.

“There are still places that suspend students for being truant,” Chang said. “Who would reward a student with a suspension for being truant — it just doesn’t make sense.”

Schools should also understand why students are missing school and not jump to any conclusions, Chang said.

“I really worry that in low income schools, when a kid doesn’t show up to school, what’s the reaction?” Chang said. “The parents don’t care. [Some teachers] have no idea of the issues related to that family. So what happens, the teacher’s reaction is to blame the kid, or blame the parent, and it further alienates the family.”

APS does not track chronic absenteeism in the same fashion as Attendance Works has for some school districts. But officials said they’re beginning to pay more attention to excused absences as much as unexcused absences.

The local focus now appears to be three-fold: empower schools to proactively monitor attendance, provide whatever service is available to and needed by families of students who are at risk of becoming truant, and keep students out of the truancy court system.

“Schools are encouraged to respond right away,” Stephens, the school network director said, but also on a case-by-case basis. No two absences are alike. The most common response to a missed day is a phone call or home visit.

Schools, especially those who serve predominantly poor students, are beefing up their services. Family centers that provide food, clothing, and other resources are opened at Jewell and Crawford elementary schools. The aim is to engage the whole family, explain the importance of school, and to eliminate as many barriers as possible to make sure the students are in their desks every day.

Student engagement directors are working with teams of school officials to reach out to students — especially at the high school level — after a second or third unexcused absence. Previously those directors only became involved after a fourth absence that could triggered a trip truancy court.

“It’s a tedious process,” said Chris Vann, an APS student engagement advocate, referring to truancy court. There are generally multiple court dates spread across several months and most students leave the system with little more than a societal stigma.

As for the Aurora Central High student who has missed every day of class since August? She’ll be in class, not court.

“We discussed at length the options available at Aurora Central and asked her to commit to one of the success plans presented that fits her current situation,” said Roberts, the school’s principal. “She is being enrolled and has a solid plan in place to finish school.”

Two for one

DSST doesn’t want to open a new school in Aurora. The charter network wants to open two.

PHOTO: Andy Cross/Denver Post
Sixth-graders at DSST: College View Middle School in class in 2014.

DSST, Denver’s largest and fastest growing charter school network, wants to open two new schools by 2021 that would serve nearly 2,000 students — in Aurora.

That’s according to a formal proposal DSST submitted to Aurora Public Schools this month. The DSST charter application was the only one the district received by the annual deadline for charter school applications this month.

The application comes with a provision that the schools operate in buildings provided by the suburban school district. Space for charter schools in Aurora has been historically difficult to find, and the district has provided little to no support in helping them locate space — until now.

Superintendent Rico Munn last year offered to build DSST a new building, if the network would pay half. Board members and existing charter school leaders questioned the superintendent on why this deal was offered to one charter school, excluding others. Charter schools are public schools receiving public tax dollars but operated by a board independent from a school district.

The Aurora school board has allowed Munn to continue discussions with DSST, but members cautioned that it did not mean there would be any guarantees and that final approval would wait until DSST went through the district’s charter approval process. Munn has said the deal is in part about connecting with a network that has a record of success on student achievement, as well as a way to offer more choices around science and technology. The Aurora district has been working to improve student performance before potentially facing state sanctions next year.

Munn’s invitation to DSST to help with a building also stirred controversy over the district’s bond request in November as some charter leaders and the union opposed or scaled back support for the measure.

Munn had proposed that the district and DSST split the cost of the new school building. The Aurora tax measure approved by voters in November included $12 million that would cover the district’s share. Leaders of charter schools already in Aurora questioned how fair it was that their funding requests were excluded from the bond proposal, while a Denver charter network would potentially get a new district-owned building.

DSST had responded that it would help with fundraising but wanted the district to take the lead in coming up with the rest of the funding. In Denver, the school district has provided space for the charter network’s schools.

The charter application did not give more information on how the buildings for the two proposed schools would be paid, but did state that the district has committed to providing the facilities.

“DSST is excited and grateful for the initial commitment from Aurora to provide DSST facilities for two 6- 12 campuses,” the application states.

The first school would open in 2019 and the second in 2021. Both would open serving 150 sixth graders, adding one grade level per year until they each served grades sixth through 12th.

In the application, DSST noted they have started outreach efforts in northwest Aurora, where the first school would open. They also cited that DSST schools across Denver already serve about 200 students who live in Aurora and who would like to “attend a DSST in their own communities.”

Some of those students, including one who said her parents driver her half an hour to school each day, attended a school board meeting in Aurora earlier this month to ask the board to consider approving the charter school.

At February’s board meeting, Aurora district officials mentioned to the board in an update about work on bond projects, that DSST had started working with the district on preliminary plans for the new school building in northwest Aurora, so the district doesn’t build something “that won’t fit.”

“We are talking to them,” Amy Spatz, Aurora’s director of construction management and design, told the board. “We’re getting feedback early.”

As far as who would attend the schools, the application proposes that the DSST schools would be open enrollment schools meaning anyone in the district would be able to apply and attend. The school would provide an application form that families would fill out during a three-month window of enrollment. If more students apply than the school has room for, the school would hold a lottery to select the students attending.

Like at other DSST schools, the application states the schools will have a goal of mirroring the overall demographic population of the district, including by enrolling at least 30 percent English language learners and 10 percent of students who are in special education.

Depending upon student and family need, DSST also noted they are interested in exploring the possibility of purchasing bus services from the district for their students.

The application will be reviewed by the district’s new Charter School Advisory Committee, then the District Accountability Committee, before going to the district’s board for a final decision in June.

Reexamining APS

New report bemoans state of education in Aurora, but superintendent begs to differ

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia

More than a year after a coalition of nonprofit groups issued a report critical of Aurora Public Schools, a follow-up released Wednesday reveals not much has changed.

Only one of five Aurora middle school students can read and write at grade level, states the new report published by the nonprofit A-Plus Colorado.

Graduation rates have increased slightly but available data still show only one in four students who start ninth grade in the district go on to enroll in college. And of those who do, half of them are not prepared for college-level coursework.

“Change — drastic change — is imperative,” the report says.

Last year, the school district released its own counter-report to outline the district’s recent reforms. But this year, Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn was sharply critical of A-Plus Colorado, which published the report alone this year. The first report in 2015 was published by a group of 17 nonprofits with ties to either public education or Aurora or both.

“Organizations such as A+ demand that school districts see the world through their lens and follow their particular directives,” Munn said in a statement. “Their focus on ‘facts’ is a thinly-veiled effort to secure funding, promote their agenda and expand their brand on the backs of Aurora students.”

Van Schoales, executive director of A-Plus Colorado, said the claim was “bizarre.”

“It speaks volumes about the focus of the school district that they’re trying to deflect from their poor performance instead of taking responsibility,” Schoales said.

Hanni Raley, director of systems advocacy for ARC of Aurora, one of the organizations that was part of the coalition to issue the 2015 report, said that she still believes the district is making progress, but that reports like Wednesday’s help keep everyone accountable.

It’s all of our jobs to continue to make those improvements and to provide those recommendations,” Raley said. “I think it’s hard to be critiqued, but we know it’s important to keep the conversation going because it is about the kiddos.”

Munn’s statement went on to defend the school district’s work, saying “APS is aggressively implementing a reform strategy.” He also pointed to positive developments, including a rising high school graduation rate, decreasing dropout rates and a decrease in student discipline.

The graduation and dropout rates are included in the A-Plus report. But Schoales said the graduation rate is “hollow” if student achievement isn’t also improving.

Munn was hired in 2013 to help improve the district’s low scores on state performance ratings. According to a report the district published in 2015 to counter the first report, Aurora schools have been working on reforms since 2013 when district leaders created a new strategic plan. Some efforts like grouping a number of low performing schools into a zone that gave the principals increased autonomy was started more recently.

But Aurora Public Schools received lower scores on the state rating in 2016 than it did in 2013 or 2014. If the district doesn’t improve those state ratings after results from this school year, it would face state sanctions in 2018.

Wednesday’s report provides four recommendations for the district to improve. The recommendations mostly echo those from 2015. They include:

  • Increasing engagement from school officials and the community for turning around struggling schools
  • Developing a school rating system to make school performance data more accessible
  • Adding high-quality schools of all types including district-run schools, charter schools and innovation schools, with a clear process for approving and managing them. Charter schools are publicly funded but independently operated, and innovation schools are run by districts but with many of the freedoms of charters.
  • Re-writing the district’s strategic plan to link goals and values to measurable student achievement data

The report also highlighted some schools that, according to the organization’s analysis, are doing better than most schools in the district. Among the high schools named are Lotus School for Excellence, a charter school, William Smith High School, a small alternative high school program, and Rangeview High School, a traditional district-run school.

“It is clear that there are practices within APS that are driving better outcomes,” the report states. “This is another opportunity for the district to look for lessons and facilitate the sharing of best practices across the district.”