no holds barred

Aurora Central grad: ‘Stop feeling sorry’ for poor kids

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Yamel Ramierez graduated from Aurora Central High School in 2015.

Yamel Ramirez has beaten the odds.

The daughter of an immigrant, Ramirez grew up poor, bounced between different neighborhoods and schools, and at one point was homeless.

Finally settled in the Original Aurora neighborhood, she graduated on time from Aurora Central High School, a school labeled as failing by the state for five years. And she just finished her first semester at Colorado State University-Pueblo with a 3.6 grade point average.

“I’m trying to give myself a life I think I deserve,” she said recently while on break between the fall and spring semesters.

Last year, Ramirez was a strong advocate for Aurora Central, which is being redesigned in an effort to boost student achievement and stave off state sanctions. She and two of her classmates spoke in front of the Aurora school board about proposed changes at Central. They knew Aurora Central had a bad rap and was in need of improvement, but there were good teachers and students trying hard at the school too, they reminded the board.

During our conversation, Ramirez reflected on her last year at Aurora Central, what changes she hopes take hold at the school and the struggles of student loans.

She also took to task the apathy she said she observed among some Aurora Central students, teachers and administrators.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

For those of us too old to remember, what is it like to graduate from high school?
It’s bittersweet. Like at any high school, you build a lot of relationships with the people you study with and teachers. It is also really sad to see how many people don’t make it to graduation. That was a really outstanding and concerning number. But I was happy to have graduated from Central — I feel like I’m an example to kids at Central (that) you can go to college.

One of the things we know is that Aurora has one of the lowest graduation rate in the metro area. Fewer than  60 percent of students graduate on time. Why do you think that is?
It makes a difference that there are so many minorities living in Aurora. I really believe that it’s important not to ignore the fact that there are things going on here in Aurora and other places that have to do with how things work systemically.

But for lack of a better term, there’s a lot of B.S. There’s a lot of excuses that to me can be figured out. Like parent involvement and the fact that students aren’t using all the resources they have. It’s a lack of motivation.

I’ve gone to a lot of schools in Colorado. My freshman year I attended a charter school in Brighton. The norm was to do well. Ninety-four percent of students were on honor roll. To fit in, you had to care about your education. And I don’t see that in these kids in Aurora. Kids at an elementary school who will likely go to Central one day, they’re already saying, “I don’t like school, I don’t like school.” And they’re like 7- and 8-years-olds.

I guess I was just always taught to value an education.

Ramirez, left, and two other Aurora Central students addressed the school board in 2015.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Ramirez, left, and two other Aurora Central students addressed the school board in 2015.

What can teachers and administrators do to overcome that mentality?
I see teachers who do try. One example is Mr. (Corey) Price at Central. He goes out of his way to make sure his lectures reach students. If he sees a student is struggling with the way he teaches, he’ll find a way to make sure you get it. I feel like, on the contrary, there are teachers who just give you a worksheet and when you can’t figure it out, they just pin you as someone who isn’t going to try. Some of these kids have no idea of what they’re looking at on these worksheets. It’s not a matter of not wanting to do it, it’s that they don’t know how to.

Do you think a school system like APS can turn that cultural tide at the student level to really make it a place where learning happens?
It will take a lot of time. It’s important to recognize that. There’s been a lot of years of damage to the students, the school, the teachers. APS and Aurora Central gets a lot of crap from everyone.

I felt like there was a community at Aurora Central. But I know a lot of kids don’t feel the same way. And I feel like that is really important: To make sure everyone feels like we can do better together. It’s a domino effect, If one cool kid tries really hard at his or her studies, others will think, “Maybe I should try to get something out of this education that is being provided to me for free.”

What needs to change at Aurora Central to make it a better school?
I think that everyone needs to stop feeling bad for the students at Central. They just need to put their foot down. We get a lot of pity and sorrow. “Oh, they’re just poor kids and refugees. That’s why they’re test scores are so low.”

Free and reduced lunch had nothing to do with the grades I had.

Stop feeling sorry for the kids. Students need adults who want to see change. I don’t think it’s wanted bad enough for the kids there. Maybe it is. I could be wrong.

Do you feel Aurora Central prepared you for a four-year college?
I feel I prepared myself. I took the initiative, which a lot of students lack. The resources and the people who want to help you are there. I love Central and I will always love Central. I took from Central 19 college credit hours for free (through concurrent enrollment, a state program that allows high school students to take college level classes). A lot of students are missing these opportunities. Students need to take greater advantage of the resources provided to them. When you don’t take advantage of these resources, you only perpetuate your status.

What are your college classes like?
I love my college classes. I think the curriculum is easier to manage for myself because I learn that way. I’m a great note-taker and I love to listen. I know some people can’t learn that way. They’re more hands-on. That’s the thing, they assess those skills at the university. I took a really long survey on my thinking skills, how I learn, what I’m most comfortable learning. It was spot-on. For me, school comes naturally.

I much prefer a college classroom versus a high school classroom. Everyone knows why they’re there and what they’re paying for. You’re paying a lot of the seat you’re sitting in.

It sounds like you’ve had a pretty good transition. But I can’t imagine everything about college has been easy?
In a sense it humbles you. I earned a 3.6 GPA last semester. Out of the six classes I had, I earned five As. But I also earned a C+. And that really crushed me. I remember at one point, I just started crying. I said to myself, “This isn’t me. I don’t perform at this level.” I tried to change my study habits, I tried to see why I just wasn’t grasping the concept.

I also felt a little under-prepared in the loan aspect. I was in a program my senior year at Central that taught me about financial aid and how student loans work. But I underestimated how much I would need to borrow. I earned scholarships and grants, but I still had to take out a lot of money. And to me that is really scary. I didn’t know that if I didn’t have that money in hand, I wouldn’t be able to register for classes for the spring semester. I felt like I just started and I was being stopped. That was a really big wakeup call.

How much did you have to borrow this year?
Fifty-five hundred dollars. It’s hard. No matter how much you prepare, you never really know how much you’re about to spend on college. I think that’s why a lot of people are discouraged. Especially those of the lower class. You know APS has a lot of at-risk students. And I think that’s a factor. There’s nothing that can save you from that. You just have to accept you’re going to be broke for a while.

So if you graduate on time, you’ll borrow about $22,000.
It’s discouraging. This is why you hear about students who graduate and then live in their parents’ basements. But this is what I love to do. I love to learn. I love to have knowledge. The more you know, the more you can help out your own community. It’s important for me to get back to Central to be a role model for students — even if it’s just one out 100.

What is keeping you in college?
The life that I had before. I don’t want to go back to that. It’s so sad to see the kids I went to high school with still doing the same thing with their lives and seeing them not wanting to push forward and do other things. It’s a really vicious cycle. A big motivation is not wanting to fit in the system. I’m trying to give myself a life I think I deserve.

At my university, the kids are just overwhelmed. Another Central graduate, he dropped out because his parents were pushing him to drop out. They lived off his income. They needed him home to afford life, groceries. He felt like he held that responsibility. He wasn’t going to class. He just went home. He called my boyfriend and he cried. He said it was the biggest mistake of his life.

Is there anything lawmakers can do to prevent college dropouts?
More financial support.

What should freshmen at Aurora Central be thinking about right now about college?
To be frank, parties and weed and alcohol are going to exist forever. You don’t have to make that a priority. You have a lot of time to party and do what you please. But that’s not what school is for. It’s not a social party. It’s not a red carpet. You go to school to learn for free. I want them to appreciate their education. How you get them to do that, I have no idea.

What could make it easier for more students to go to college and succeed?
I think more students should get involved in programs like concurrent enrollment and college-prep program like the one I was in. Once you get that foot in the door at a college or university, you don’t want to step out. Once students see all the potential, all the things they can learn, all the programs and clubs, they’ll never want to leave.

Questions of fairness

Aurora school board raises red flags about bringing DSST charter to district, but signs off on continuing negotiations

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

The school board for Aurora Public Schools on Tuesday gave district officials approval to continue negotiations with the DSST charter network, but not before raising concerns about the process and emphasizing that this green light doesn’t guarantee final approval later.

Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn earlier this year proposed a plan to bring the high-performing DSST network to Aurora, in a new school serving sixth through 12th graders.

Under Munn’s proposal, APS would pay for up to half of the cost of a new district-owned building and allow DSST to use it if the charter network came up with the rest of the money. After passage last month of a $300 million bond measure that included the district’s share of the project cost, Munn on Tuesday asked the board for input on continuing negotiations and on what he should prioritize.

DSST has said it would assist with fundraising to complete the building, but that it believes the school district should take the lead.

Board members asked questions around fundraising for the second half of the building’s cost, about whether the school would serve students from across the district or from a specified boundary, and whether the timing is right.

Some board members also raised concerns that the process of inviting DSST for the partnership may not have been fair, and cautioned that they didn’t want to make any guarantees to DSST before the network submits an application for a charter in the district.

“A concern I have with this proposal and not the school — because I would love to have a DSST campus here — is how the community was engaged… and also how our charters were engaged,” said board member Dan Jorgensen. “We’re setting up a situation where an outside provider is going to have an opportunity to serve kids, where none of our charters within the district were given that same opportunity.”

Pat Leger, principal of Aurora Academy a charter in its sixth year in the district, said she would have liked the opportunity to have been considered, but mostly felt “offended” because of a recent disagreement with the district about whether her charter could benefit from the district’s bond dollars.

“The part of the process that bothered me the most is he wouldn’t include us in the bond, but he will go out and give money to a charter that he’s never worked with,” Leger said. “That to me feels inappropriate.”

Aurora charter schools are set to get some bond money to improve technology and security, but a district committee found their larger capital requests did not merit inclusion in the bond.

Leger said that she believes Munn’s intentions are good, but that the process hasn’t made it clear why the district believes that need exists at a time when enrollment is down and several other new charter schools were recently approved to open.

“The whole process needs to be looked at,” she said.

Van Schoales, CEO of the nonprofit A-Plus Colorado, while pleased that the district has become more welcoming to charter schools, said his group is also concerned about Aurora’s process.

“You have to have an open, transparent process,” Schoales said. “The fact that the district went back and forth with schools about access to facilities and the bond, it speaks to the fact that there aren’t any clear written rules of engagement.”

Without a process, Schoales said, it could for some people “reinforce the perception that there are backroom deals happening.” Last year, to bring more clarity and transparency to its process, Denver Public Schools adopted a new policy for how it allocates space to district-run and charter schools.

In a letter sent to Munn in July, Bill Kurtz, the charter network’s CEO, expressed a willingness to pursue the plan but outlined a set of criteria the group uses to evaluate potential partnerships. Among the opportunities DSST would be looking for in a deal would be the ability to operate four schools in the district.

Several board members said they would not want to guarantee any future schools without having them go through the district’s application process first. Board member JulieMarie Shepherd wasn’t at the board meeting, but submitted her opinion to the board in writing, expressing the same thought. According to the district’s regular charter school process, applications are accepted each year in March.

The other main concern board members raised was about the timing of opening a new school while enrollment numbers in the district have started dropping. School officials this year were off on their projections by 643 students, requiring the district to adjust the current year’s budget by cutting $3 million.

Two of the five board members at Tuesday’s meeting, Amber Drevon and Barbara Yamrick, suggested the district pause negotiations with DSST while the board works on the budget. Jorgensen requested that district staff look at the financial implications to provide the board more information before a deal reaches a final vote.

Munn told the board that if a deal is reached, a DSST school wouldn’t open for a few years and that by that time, district officials predict enrollment will be increasing again.

Too much too fast?

Key piece of Aurora Central High School’s reform plan not yet in place

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
An Aurora Central High School student listens during his advanced science class in 2015.

Nearly half a year after district officials laid out a plan for changes at Aurora Central High School, at least one major focus of reform is not yet in place despite an aggressive timeline the district spelled out in the plan approved by the state.

The school is one of five low performing schools that Aurora Public Schools grouped into an innovation zone, granting each school autonomy from various rules and policies so they can try different improvement strategies. Aurora Central’s plans focused on adopting a so-called competency-based learning model, which does away with traditional grade levels based on age and instead groups and advances students through levels based on what they know.

Officials say the plan included so many pieces that some changes took priority over others.

“Any plan we implement is only going to be as strong as how we implement it,” said Lamont Browne, executive director of Aurora Public Schools’ innovation zone schools. “One of our core pillars for the innovation zone is investing in people, so that’s where we started in the summer before the school year began.”

The innovation plan for Aurora Central — the only traditional high school in the innovation zone — included a timeline to start trying a competency-based model starting with ninth graders and adding one grade level at a time. An entire section in the plan covered the need for, and the details of, the competency based plan that would “provide flexibility in the way that credit can be earned,” “provide students with personalized learning opportunities,” and increase engagement, “because the content is relevant to each student and tailored to their unique needs.”

“We are confident we can assemble a core set of strong, committee, and driven staff that would be willing and motivated to pilot this approach with our 9th grade for the 2016-2017 school year,” district officials stated in the plan.

The work was to start over the summer with teachers and educators meeting to align the competencies and determine if the resources and tests available were enough. Those meetings started, Browne said, but weren’t completed. Many teachers were new and needed more training.

“We didn’t anticipate having that many new teachers,” Browne said.

District officials say they are still researching the model and whether it is the right fit for the school. In the meantime, other changes are being made including some that were part of the plan and some that weren’t.

“We are working very hard to implement the plan, but more importantly to improve the schools,” Browne said.

Aurora Central’s innovation plan could be under scrutiny soon as the state gets ready to decide on sanctions for schools, including Aurora Central, that have recorded five years of low state ratings. Among the options, state officials could recommend the school for closure, or turn over management to a third party.

The state could also approve an innovation plan in place of the more drastic sanctions, giving the school more time to show improvement while it makes the changes.

Exactly how those plans would be reviewed to determine if they should be given time to show improvement, and how they would be monitored as schools work on the changes, is still not clear.

Peter Sherman, executive director for school and district performance at the Colorado Department of Education, said that his staff created a rubric that they used to look at Aurora Central’s innovation plan before it was approved by the state.

“We knew we were going to have innovation plans that come forward as accountability pathways and we knew we would need to look at those innovation plans through a different lens, so we created a rubric that sort of looks at it as a dramatic turnaround plan,” Sherman said. “We were trying to be proactive. Everyone at CDE thought their plan was good. We all can get behind it.”

However, Sherman later clarified that the earlier approval of the plan was not a sign that it was without faults. Before the state board approval, education department officials provided feedback that was critical of the plan, including concerns about how the school’s leadership would help put the new learning model in place and about the timeline for the “large number of initiatives.”

Browne said district officials are still not sure if Aurora Central’s innovation plan will be presented to the state as an accountability plan to avoid other state sanctions.

In the meantime as officials try improving the schools, the innovation zone team has an advisory group that includes teachers and school leaders meeting biweekly to constantly re-assess the needs of the schools in the innovation zone and prioritize the changes they make.

Included in the work that is happening at Central, Browne highlighted adjustments to teacher training days, training for school leadership teams through the nonprofit Relay Graduate School of Education, and programs to help ninth graders transitioning to high school including a pilot where a middle school counselor from Boston K-8 school is traveling to Central once a week to keep track of students coming from that school.

“We feel very confident in the adjustments we have been making,” Browne said. “But we have a long time before we’re satisfied. The amount of growth that is necessary is not going to happen overnight.”

This story has been updated to add more context about Peter Sherman’s comments.