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.”

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.

First expansion

Aurora school board votes to approve DSST charter schools

PHOTO: Andy Cross/Denver Post
Sixth-graders at DSST: College View answer questions during class in 2014.

The school board for Aurora Public Schools on Tuesday voted to approve a charter application that will allow a high-performing charter network from Denver to open four schools in Aurora.

DSST applied to operate two campuses each with a middle and a high school. The first middle school would open in the fall of 2019. The application was written after Aurora’s superintendent invited the network to Aurora, offering to build the charter a new school with bond money approved in November.

Several people spoke during public comment, including students asking for the schools to be approved and teachers raising concerns about whether the charter will serve all students.

Two board members, Eric Nelson and Barbara Yamrick, voted against approving the application. Yamrick had said at a previous board meeting that she respected the school and its performance, but would vote against the application. Nelson said he wanted to postpone the decision to get more data about the outcomes of the charter school’s current students.

State law sets a timeline for voting on charter applications after they are submitted. DSST would have had to agree to postpone the vote Tuesday, but board president Amber Drevon said she was not going to ask for a delay after the work that had already gone into the application.

Board members also clarified that they will vote again in the fall to approve a contract with specific requirements around enrollment and performance.

DSST is known for intentionally seeking to build racially integrated schools, producing high state test scores and getting all of its students accepted into four-year universities. The network runs four of the five top high schools in Denver and has earned national attention, leading to donations from Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey.

DSST currently educates about 5,000 students and is planning to expand within Denver to operate 22 schools by 2024. The Aurora schools would be the network’s first ones outside of Denver.

Bill Kurtz, CEO of the network, said in an interview before Tuesday’s meeting that Aurora’s invitation and the community’s interest in the schools — the charter presented hundreds of letters of support with their application — was a big factor in accepting the invitation.

But, he said, Aurora was also a good fit for DSST because of its proximity to Denver, the area’s need for better schools and the district’s offer of a building.

Initially, Aurora asked the charter network to come up with half of the funding for a new building. DSST offered to help raise funds, but said the district should take on the responsibility.

The resolution the school board approved Tuesday night set a March 30, 2018 deadline for coming up with the money for the first DSST campus — leaving the exact division of fundraising between the district and the charter network vague.

Kurtz said it should be made clear that the district will be responsible for paying for the construction of the building.

“Aurora Public Schools will own the building,” Kurtz said. “Because they own the building, they own the responsibility. We are happy to assist and support that effort but ultimately that is their responsibility.”