B is for Bokwa

Bok-what? Aurora schools try a new form of fitness

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

Don’t feel bad if you don’t know what Bokwa is. You’re not alone.

But if you go to Aurora’s Dalton Elementary on a Friday afternoon, you’ll soon understand the district’s newest after-school fitness activity. Rob Johnson, the energetic P.E. teacher who the kids call “Coach,” will be at the front of the gym with 40 students in scattershot rows behind him.

He’ll play a pop song like “Timber” on his laptop, throw a hand above his head to signal the group, and they’ll launch into a fast-paced Zumba-like dance routine. What’s hard to see is that the students are essentially making the shapes of letters and numbers on the floor with each series of steps, hops and kicks.

Dalton Elementary P.E. teacher Rob Johnson demonstrates Bokwa steps on a recent afternoon.
Dalton Elementary P.E. teacher Rob Johnson demonstrates Bokwa steps on a recent afternoon.

Think of it as cardio dance with a paint-by-numbers sort of ease. In an era where schools are increasingly trying to get students moving—both to prevent obesity and facilitate learning—Bokwa’s accessibility is part of the attraction.

It was  created in the early 2000s by Los Angeles fitness instructor and native South African Paul Mavi. The name combines “bo” from light boxing and  “kwa” from kwaito, a South African musical genre.

“It’s good music and if you’re drawing letters with your feet…they can relate,” said Johnson, who also uses Bokwa in his PE classes. “It’s easy for them to do it. It’s not like six or seven hard dance moves like when we did Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.’” (Yes, Johnson taught his students the Thriller dance.)

Dalton is among five Aurora schools that now offer after-school Bokwa classes, and administrators say they hope to see more schools sign on. All told, two dozen district schools, including Dalton, began offering some kind of after-school exercise programs this year as part of the district’s “Physical Opportunity Programs” or POP, funded with a $200,000 Thriving Schools grant from Kaiser Permanente Colorado.

The goal is to create a culture of daily physical activity at participating schools, said Curtis Robbins, Kaiser’s senior manager of youth health and educational theater programs.

“I think people are getting much more interested in how do we think about physical activity creatively and engage people creatively around it,” he said. “Kids, they’re not really engaged when you say ‘Lets get up and do jumping jacks.’”

Third-grader Aiden Bojang, who’s become a regular at Johnson’s Friday Bokwa sessions, said it’s “because I have a lot of energy and I like to move around a lot.” Without the classes, he said he’d probably be at home playing Minecraft.

Participation in Bokwa classes has increased steadily since Johnson started them last October.

“I keep getting at least five new people every week,” he said, as he caught his breath after a recent session. “Last week I was so excited, I ran into the office and was like, “Best class ever!”

Girl smiling during bokwa

Sasha Gard, a spritely third-grader who volunteered that she takes nine hours of dance lessons each week, said she was sold on Bokwa when she found out it was another form of her favorite activity. The only problem, she said, is that she’s short and can’t always see Johnson demonstrate the steps if she can’t snag a front row spot.

Indeed, the classes are so new that most participants have to watch Johnson carefully so they can follow along. During last Friday’s recent class, Johnson paused frequently to explain the steps for a new letter or number.

“Right, left, right, left, punch, kick with your knees,” he called at one point. A few minutes later, he shouted, “If you get lost, wait till we go to a ‘one.’ I will try to put as many ‘ones’ in there as possible.”

Aurora administrators say the district is the only one in the state currently offering Bokwa in schools. The activity, while growing in popularity at health clubs in the United States and abroad, is still relatively unknown.

Dalton parent David  Lozornio said when his daughter Melissa brought a flier home about the Friday Bokwa classes, he went on the Internet to learn more.

“I never heard of it,” he said. “I did some research [to] see what it was about.”

So far, students aren’t the only ones coming to the classes. Last Friday, about 10 teachers and a few parents filled in spots at the back and along the edges of Dalton’s gym. One of them was third grade teacher Amy Smith.

She’d attended Johnson’s class a few weeks before because it’s one way for staff members to get workout credit through the district’s “Biggest Loser” competition. She liked it so much, she signed up to take the official day-long Bokwa training the district is offering in February. Once she gets the training, she hopes to incorporate the activity into classroom brain breaks.

“It’s very kid-friendly…Once you learn the steps you can put them together in any order,” she said. “And the kids that are here with me from my class, they are so excited. Then on Monday they’re like, ‘I got to dance with Miss Smith.’”

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.