next steps

College center, first of its kind in Aurora, puts students on path for life after high school

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Hinkley College Center director Jazmin Lopez speaks with senior Moise Kombo in January.

AURORA — Moise Kombo calls it his “getaway spot.”

About once a week, the quiet young man with designs on becoming among the first in his family to attend college escapes to a first-floor room at Hinkley High School. There, he works on all the things expected of him if he is to accomplish a goal that’s proven elusive to many of his peers in Aurora Public Schools.

“I thought it was all about your ACT score,” said Kombo, a Hinkley senior who recently moved from Nebraska. “I never expected to have to write an essay or get a recommendation letter. It was all a surprise to me.”

The College Center at 2,100-student Hinkley High School, the first of its kind in Aurora Public Schools, is supposed to take away the element of surprise. The center is one-stop shop where students can zero in on possible career paths, learn what colleges on their wish list look for and master how to craft a winning scholarship essay.

Opened this fall, the center is one strategy that grew out of a $3.4 million state Department of Higher Education grant program aimed at improving Colorado’s relatively poor record of getting low-income students to college.

Other similar centers have opened or expanded throughout metro Denver through the initiative, which is supporting more than two-dozen districts, universities and nonprofits taking a range of approaches.

The center-based approach — where college is the only focus — comes as high-school counselors are being asked to do more and handle greater numbers of students.

The challenges are all the more daunting in APS, an inner suburban school district where student achievement and graduation rates have lagged behind other Front Range districts, at-risk students are plentiful and philanthropic dollars are scarce.

Inside the College Center

The College Center at Hinkley is run single-handedly by a woman who knows the position most of her students are in.

Student Voice | Read a Hinkley High School student’s essay that was written at the College Center here.

Jazmin Lopez graduated from Denver’s North High during a tumultuous school improvement effort and was an early benefactor of the Denver Scholarship Foundation’s Future Center, which served as inspiration for Hinkley’s.

“I was one of them,” said Lopez, the center director.

Today, Lopez works with about 300 juniors and seniors a week. While the center is a drop-in space with about a half-dozen computers, printers and scanners, Lopez also uses the space to host organized seminars for students she pulls from classes throughout the day.

Earlier this year, she held a seminar just for black students. And later this spring she’ll work with a group of students who have already been accepted to the University of Northern Colorado on how to register for classes and navigate the school’s bureaucracy.

Lopez also has hosted evening events for families that center around filling out college applications and financial aid forms. There will be twice as many next school year, she said.

Her goal: to have all Hinkley seniors apply to a two- or four-year college.

“I have no doubt we’ll reach it,” she said.

The state’s dilemma

By 2025, state officials wants 66 percent of all adults in the state to have some job certificate or degree. In order to reach that goal, the Department of Higher Education has set its eyes on getting more students of color to college or workforce training.

By one key measure, minority students lag behind in college enrollment. The most recent data available, from 2013, shows 41 percent of white Colorado high school graduates went to a state-run college. Meanwhile, only about 30 percent of Latino and black high school graduates when to a state-run school.

That gap between white and Latino widens when out of state colleges are taken into account.

“When we’re out in the field, the main reasons we’re hearing why students aren’t pursuing college is because they either don’t know about it or they don’t believe [it’s possible],” said Dawn Taylor Owens, executive director of College in Colorado, a program of CDHE.

She said more programs like Hinkley’s College Center are needed to explain all the after-high school options from certificate programs to associate’s degrees.

“It’s about talking to kids who might be afraid of the word ‘college’ and helping them realize there are so many options,” she said.

Counselor load

The school district’s high counselor to student ratio was one reason why  officials sought to open a college center.

For every 350 high school students, APS has one counselor. The National American School Counselor Association recommends one counselor for every 250 students.

“The caseload of our counselors were already high,” said Jay Grimm, executive director of the Aurora Public Schools Foundation, which runs the center. “With the work going on with keeping kids on track and getting them to graduation, we wanted to supplement that guidance and put an emphasis on what is possible after high school.”

Not only are counselors seeing more kids, but they’re being asked to do more than counselors have traditionally been asked to do, said Taylor Owens. Those tasks include managing student data and schedules, crisis situations and other wrap around services.

Corey Notestine, post-secondary coordinator for Colorado Springs School District 11, said college centers are becoming more common.

“Where funding is available, these programs are popping up,” said Notestine, who was named the 2015 School Counselor of the Year by the American School Counselor Association.

More than a number

Often, the journey to college ends before it starts for Aurora students. Only 40 percent of all APS high school graduates go on to a two-or four-year colleges, according to state data. That’s compared to 55 percent statewide.

“No one is saying you need to finish,” said Hinkley senior Joselin Rivera, who is a daily visitor to the College Center, as to why that number isn’t higher.

But that appears to be changing, Rivera said. The College Center helped her focus and refine her search for colleges and scholarships.

“You can go to Google and find things, but here, Ms. Lopez leads you in the right direction,” she said. “Ms. Lopez gave me the courage to apply [to Columbia University].”

As for Kombo, the Nebraska transplant, he’s considering Pickens or Emily Griffith technical colleges to become a trained mechanic. And at the advice of Lopez, he’s also considering the Metropolitan State University to earn a four-year degree in mechanical engineering.

He just hopes there is a similar resource like the first-floor center at Hinkley on the other side of summer.

“It took me a while to find this place,” he said. “But I’m glad I did.”

The following essay was written by Hinkely High School senior Joselin Rivera. She is a daily visitor to the College Center. She wants to be a writer and hopes to attend Columbia University in New York.

'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.”