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.

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.