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.

'Nothing magic'

Stay the course: Struggling Aurora Central will not face drastic state-ordered changes

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Aurora Central High School has been labeled as failing by the state for five years.

Aurora Central High School will continue ongoing reforms but with help from a management company, avoiding more dire consequences for its chronic low performance over more than five years.

During a hearing Wednesday, the State Board of Education unanimously voted to allow staff to finalize a plan that will give the struggling school at least two more years to keep working on reforms rolled out this school year. The board will vote on the blueprint next month.

“There’s nothing magic about this recommendation,” Katy Anthes, Colorado’s education commissioner, told the board Wednesday. “It just takes an incredible amount of work and dedication. We think the staff members here have that dedication.”

The state department’s recommendations mirrored the district’s proposal, an outgrowth of the state’s approach of working with districts and schools facing state intervention to reach agreements before the accountability hearings.

Aurora Central’s last year of data showed declines in student performance. Attendance data presented Wednesday also has been going in the wrong direction. In the 2015-16 school year, daily attendance was 76.5 percent, significantly lower than the state average attendance rate of 93.2 percent.

But state officials told the board they saw the school’s culture improving, giving them hope the plan could lead to improvements. They also cited a rising graduation rate in the last school year.

“We believe a rigorous implementation of this plan can see rapid change in student achievement and growth,” Anthes said.

Aurora Central is the first large high school to face the state for possible sanctions after reaching its limit of years of low performance. The school enrolls about 2,100 students, of which 70 percent are still learning English as a second language.

Since the start of this school year, Aurora Central has been operating under innovation status, which gives it more autonomy from state and district rules.

Under the innovation plan, the school day at Central was extended, and the school was allowed to reject teachers the district wanted placed there and have more control over all staffing.

District and school officials Wednesday answered questions from board members about education for second language learners, serious attendance problems and their work to engage the community.

Rico Munn, superintendent of Aurora Public Schools, told board members that community support of the school had significantly increased in the last year, as seen by donations to the school and community organizations that are working with school staff.

Board member Pam Mazanec questioned Aurora officials about the amount of money from multiple grants they had already been provided for school reforms in the last four years and why they hadn’t produced good results.

School officials said money spent in the past on teacher training was not followed with help to use the new techniques in the classroom. They said the number of instructional coaches at the school this year has significantly increased in an effort to change that.

“I don’t believe the systems and structures were in place,” said Jennifer Pock, assistant principal at Central. “There was not a time for teachers to collaborate. The support is very different this year to carry on the work that began.”

The new wrinkle in the state improvement plan is the addition of a management company, Boston-based Mass Insight. The company’s work will be in partnership with the district, but exact details of what the company would be in charge of are still being determined.

An official from Mass Insight said Wednesday the company intends to question the district and suggest what to focus on or change.

The school district will be required to provide the state updates about progress at least once a year.

staying the course

Why state education officials think Aurora Central’s latest reforms deserve more time

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia

State education officials believe Aurora Central High School should get at least two more years to see its latest reforms through — with some help.

Last year, Aurora Public Schools went to the state and won innovation status for the struggling school. That gave the 2,100-student school more autonomy from certain rules and laws. Teachers could be hired and dismissed by school officials. The school day was lengthened and programming could stray from what the district was doing.

Some parts of the plan have been a challenge for the school, however, district officials acknowledge in documents.

Many teachers were new and unprepared for the work. The school has struggled to hire for certain positions. And teachers don’t have enough planning time to make student advisory periods “meaningful.”

Still, state officials evaluated the school’s progress and found hope that the plan still could lead to better student performance, and also that it has broad community support.

When state officials and Aurora leaders appear before the state Board of Education on Wednesday, they will present a plan to continue the school’s innovation plan while handing over management of some pieces of it to a Boston-based company. The board must approve the plan for it to move forward.

“Knowing that Aurora Central is a complicated and challenging environment, and knowing that their data is low and they’ve not demonstrated a lot of progress, we believe there are components on that innovation plan that have promise if implemented well and if led well,” said Peter Sherman, executive director for school and district performance at the Colorado Department of Education. “We do believe the management partners piece is key.”

State officials were more critical of the plan in earlier feedback to the district, citing concerns about an aggressive timeline, questions about school leadership and more.

Aurora Public Schools would not make anyone available for an interview to discuss the plan, and the district’s written responses to emailed inquiries left many questions unanswered.

At a recent board meeting, district officials presented a brief update on Central’s accountability plan and said they were confident about the recommendation and the progress at Central.

“We feel that we’ve been aggressive in trying to turn around Central,” Lamont Browne, executive director of autonomous schools for Aurora, told the school board.

About 80 percent of Aurora Central’s more than 2,100 students are identified as low-income based on qualifying for free or reduced price lunches. About 70 percent of students are English language learners, and 12 different languages are spoken.

Less than half of the students at Central graduate within four years. Chronic absenteeism is a “significant problem for two-thirds of all students,” according to the documents the district submitted to the state. The number of students meeting expectations based on state testing has consistently been lower than most schools in the district and in the state.

The plan presented to the state last year for increased autonomy intended to address the school’s issues by creating competency-based learning, which allows students to earn credit as they prove they’ve learned a standard. That would give students more flexibility to earn credit and get lessons that are personalized.

The model has been piloted this year at Central in a limited way during one period of the day for ninth graders. Earlier in the year, Browne said moving to the model was slowed because there were too many new teachers and they needed more training. Now, the school has created a group to look at how to continue the roll-out of the model to 10th graders next year.

The school’s plan also called for a work group to address attendance issues. But according to the documents submitted to the state, the group had to narrow its focus to a certain group of students because of limited “manpower.”

Teachers were supposed to have more joint planning time, but were also asked to do home visits to increase parent engagement and run advisory periods that would allow adults to address students’ non-academic issues, including attendance problems.

Getting teachers and students to buy into the advisory periods has been a problem, the district’s documents state.

The documents also include some plans for adjusting work to address the current challenges.

For instance, to make advisory periods more meaningful, the school will change the schedule so they are only held twice a week. The school also will provide more training to teachers so they can plan those periods.

To improve the rollout of the competency-based model, leaders plan to increase the amount of training for teachers, among other strategies.

“(Professional Development) sessions will involve creating competencies for each standard, as well as coming to a building-wide consensus of what competency looks like based on the demands of each standard,” the document states.

The district cites having more ninth grade students on track for graduation as evidence that tweaks will make a difference. The recommendation cites some improvement on decreasing the dropout rate and increasing the graduation rate this year.

But results from schools that increase school-level autonomy have not been promising in the past. A report last year from the state found that only three of 18 failing schools across the state granted “innovation status” at the time had made enough progress to make it off of the list of schools facing action for low-performance. The findings called into question whether the autonomy granted made a difference for schools with such low performance.

But in the state recommendation for Central, other possible actions for the school — including closing it or converting it to a charter — were not deemed possible for now.

“Given the size of Aurora Central and the community support behind the current reforms being enacted, the Department recommends full implementation of the innovation zone for at least two years before considering conversion to a charter school,” the recommendation states. “CDE does not recommend school closure, first and foremost, because there is not capacity at other district high schools to serve the 2,172 Aurora Central students.”

The plan also proposes a management role for Mass Insight, a Boston-based company that already has been working under contract with some Aurora schools and helped gather input to draft the original innovation plans. Browne said at the board meeting this month that details of what the company would do are not completely worked out yet.

Documents state the company now would “focus on project management and performance management for innovation implementation.”

“Mass Insight’s responsibility is to support implementation of the innovation plan for Central so it is not directing action at all it’s just supporting the innovation plan,” Browne said. “What that looks like next year is still to be determined.”