Student Voices

Meet the three students trying to reshape Aurora Central High

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Aurora Central High School students Juan Carbajal, Matthew Bouchey and Savion Harris helped craft a plan to reboot the school.

AURORA — If you had asked Aurora Central High School students Juan Carbajal, Matthew Bouchey and Savion Harris six months ago if they would play an integral part in saving one of Colorado’s most troubled high schools, they would have laughed.

“I never thought the school would change,” said Bouchey, a sophomore. “I thought I’d go through all four years doing the same thing, just with different classes and different teachers.”

But today, the three students can speak about the intricacies of school design and education policies like the most entrenched edu-wonk. That’s because the trio has helped a team of teachers, parents and administrators reconceive what Aurora Central could look like next year.

Their school is one of about 150 Colorado schools at risk of state sanctions if student test results and graduation rates don’t increase in the coming years. The Aurora school district is also at risk of losing its accreditation with the state.

As a last-ditch effort, five schools in the Original Aurora neighborhood are being redesigned under a 2008 state law that gives schools certain freedoms to chart their own paths.

The first drafts of those plans were released last week.

Chalkbeat spoke with the Aurora Central students about their new principal, their role on the design team and what they hope to see change. They also shared their startling discovery that Aurora Central is not alone in its improvement efforts. The students said they had no idea that work being done at Aurora Central was similar to efforts playing out at schools across the country.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What’s this school year been like?

Juan: I definitely see changes around here. As a freshman, we had a different principal. Things weren’t so well. Kids were ditching a lot. Everyone was always getting into fights. And we had a really bad truancy rate. My sophomore and junior year, we got another principal, (Mark Roberts). A lot of people who I saw getting into fights and ditching and just bad troublemakers, you saw them kind of go away. Dr. Roberts got rid of some of those people at Aurora Central. And he started to focus on building community with us. This year as a senior, I’ve seen our new principal Mr. (Gerardo) De La Garza do that as well.

Now, having the site and design team active, we’ve been trying to involve the community. We’re trying to get everyone in the community to do their part to help Aurora Central get out of where we are right now.

How much time have you spent on the design team?

Matthew: I can start off by saying, a lot. I never kept count. We met every Tuesday from 3:45 to 5:15. Then we had all-day meetings too. That’s usually the really big drive when we get a lot done.

Do you accept the ‘failing’ label adults at the state Department of Education have given Aurora Central?

Matthew: I disagree wholeheartedly. Ever since I was a baby, all I can remember is Aurora Central bringing in kids who haven’t had an education from places like third-world countries, other places where the education system isn’t as good as ours. Other schools will reject those students for not being smart enough. Aurora Central is one of the few schools to bring them in and give them an education. By that standard, I think Aurora Central is a better school that most. Sure, Central has its problems. A lot of kids ditch class. A lot of students are fighting. But that’s because no one believes in us. No one has offered to help us or do anything for us.

Students at Aurora Central High School work on an assignment during class during the spring of 2015.
PHOTO: Nic Garcia
Students at Aurora Central High School work on an assignment during class during the spring of 2015.

Do your teachers believe in you?

Savion: A lot of them do. But I think we’re biased. I’m not saying this is in a prideful way, but you know, we’re high achievers. I don’t think that’s the same for other students. You know in every school there is that group of teachers who are bad. And they don’t care. But I think that if we’re going to classify ourselves as a family, we have to communicate that to all students, not just AP honor students.

What was the most interesting thing you learned about school design from this process? Did you know how complicated it was to design a school?

(All three laugh and groan.)
Matthew: It was really nice looking at all these different schools across the country — across the world, really — that are in the same situation we are. It’s nice to see we’re not alone. There are so many schools that are like us that are trying to turn around that rep that they have and all these different ways they’ve done it are so outside the box. It was crazy.
Juan: We’ve been researching a lot of these different schools. Sometimes our people would contact the school administrators there and they’d ask, “How did you become so successful? How did you turn it around? How did you get to that goal of everyone graduating on time?”

You mentioned that you were shocked to learn how many schools are in a similar situation as Aurora Central. Did you think Aurora Central was alone?

Juan: Yeah, in all honesty. Because everyone around you is saying “Aurora Central. Aurora Central. Aurora Central.”
Savion: That’s the way the data makes it look. Data makes it look like you’re by yourself, you’re only doing this alone. But I realized there are other schools that have problems just like we do. But some of it is not revealed as much.

What else shocked you?

Savion: One thing that really shocked me was that teachers weren’t really being supported. Teachers didn’t feel like they had strong leadership behind them, that backbone that would push them to push the students.
Matthew: For something like this to work it has to be coming from both sides. It can’t just be the students trying to get this done and the teachers separately trying to get it done. We have to work together. I always found it fascinating that so many people at Central didn’t like Central. Even the students in Central thought Central was a bad school. And then we started this design committee and they’re like, “Hey, we’re trying to do something now. We’re trying to fix the school.”

What do you hope this school looks like a year from now?

Matthew: Next year, I really hope the students at Central are more involved than they are now. I really want the populace to accept that we all come from different households, that we all come from less fortunate households, but that you can overcome that to become a better person and to have more life experiences than someone who goes to a private school like Regis or some rich, more affluent school because you tried harder and you had to go through more stuff.

I’m hoping it’s more one-on-one for you to really get to know your teachers and your classmates. We’re hoping to have smaller class sizes and different periods that are specifically designed for you to build relationships with the staff and community. I think it will make a difference because our main goal, besides turning around grades, is to improve the school’s culture, to really have each others’ back.

Savion: I hope classrooms are more mixed — not allowing honor students just to be with honor students, normal students just being with normal students — but have that mixture so they can build that relationship student-to-student. Right now there is a vibe that I can only be with people based on my capabilities. You know, I can only be associated with you, or marked as gifted, if I’m in a certain class.

One other major change I’d like to see is the breaking of the chain of indifference. It means students don’t just come to school to take up space but to actually strive. The first day, if I were an administrator, I’d make sure to know my students. I’d make sure when they walk through the door, they’d know success is the only thing they need to strive for.

Were there any ideas that you thought would be really awesome that didn’t make it into the final draft?

Savion: Bringing back home-ec and other life skills classes. I was so gung-ho about that. I was like, “Oh my gosh, what if we do this again?” I think it would help with our chronic absenteeism.

Do you think the plan is enough to support teachers and to spur more learning by students? Come next fall, will there be a real desire by both students and adults to be at this school? To do school?

Juan: By next fall, it probably won’t. It’s going to take time. But I can tell you it’s a start. We will achieve those results.
Matthew: It’s sort of like a car at a stoplight. Once the light turns green, we’re not going to be going fast. But we’ll be accelerating and we don’t plan on stopping.

Aurora Public Schools board members Mary Lewis, Cathy Wildman, and JulieMarie Shepherd in 2015.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Aurora Public Schools board members Mary Lewis, Cathy Wildman, and JulieMarie Shepherd in 2015.

What do you want the adults on the local school board and the ones in Denver on the State Board of Education who must approve the plan to know about it?

Matthew: They need to know what Central is like now. In a perfect world, I’d like everyone to spend a week teaching a class, being the dean, doing something at Central to really get a feel for it before they decide what’s happening.

Is it acceptable for some schools to not do as well as others because of the students who walk through the door?

Matthew: It depends on what you mean by “do well.” When it comes to having higher test scores, I say there are always going to be schools that are higher and some schools that are lower because some schools will have more resources. But just having fewer resources shouldn’t stop a school from being better.
Savion: The thing is that we jump to conclusions based on our environment and where we are. I think what makes a school better or raises the caliber is its character. I don’t have to go to Cherry Creek to do well. I have to change my mindset.

With this plan, I hope we not only achieve academic standards, but relationship standards. Instead of students feeling like prisoners inside schools, how about administrators walk out and engage with students at lunch?

Is that how students feel right now?

Savion: The police are always roaming around here. Of course they want to ensure our safety but when a student is getting in trouble they shouldn’t be meeting handcuffs. They should be able to talk things out and address the situation.

If we’re going to be real, we have to think about those things. It’s not just about academics. Yeah, we have to increase our tests scores. But at the end of the day, we have to have relationships. It all has to tie into relationship building. Do you want students here to keep a bench warm or do you actually care about them? Because if you have half your population missing, something must be going on.

Who’s at fault for students not being at Aurora Central?

Savion: I think some things start at home. And sometimes students have to act like their own parent because parents are pulled in different directions putting food on the table. If you don’t have a good support system at home, then tomorrow is not promised that you’ll be at school learning.

Is there anything the adults at Aurora Central can do to help?

Juan: I think the adults need to get one-on-one with the students’ families. It has to be the student, the teacher and the parents. It has to be those three.
Savion: Of course it’s important to understand both sides. What adults can do is be that adult in one’s face: What can I do? Do you need a ride home? Do you need help with your siblings? If you don’t have breakfast, I will give you something to eat. Students should not feel every time they walk into the building that they will just see adults in their offices. If there is something adults can do it’s leave their offices. Let the community know your face. Let them know your child can feel secure.

Is that asking too much of the school?

Matthew: Desperate times call for desperate measures. We’re in a pretty bad situation. We need to ask for a lot. And I think it will be easier once we get more staff.

Savion, you were shocked that teachers didn’t feel supported. What supports do you hope they have next year?

Matthew: As it stands right now, I think we might be asking teachers for more than they can physically do, asking teachers to build relationships with students and go to their houses and learn about their families. That’s a lot to ask of a teacher.
Savion: Ideally, this plan is supposed to support teachers. But if teachers aren’t being provided the right information, ABC to XYZ, the teachers won’t support this plan and this plan won’t support them.

There’s a fear in the atmosphere about one-year contracts. (Part of the plan calls for teachers to work on a year-to-year basis.) That creates fear. It’s more of a fear tactic than saying to teachers, “go on and do your job.”

Aurora Central science teacher Tony Bullock prepped his students for an exam earlier this spring.
Aurora Central science teacher Tony Bullock prepped his students for an exam in 2015.

How does that transfer to the classroom?

Matthew: It can go both ways: Some will do the best they can because they’re afraid to lose their job and they want to impress the principal. It can also mean they’re looking for another job in other places where it’s more secure.
Juan: And they start slacking a lot more because they figure they’re going to lose their job anyway.
Matthew: And then you lose the teachers. And you lose the relationships they built with the students and it continues the cycle that we’ve had that’s been failing.
Savion: Give teachers the right to not feel scared.

Do you think there are some teachers who should be fired? I think there are people who imagine some teachers are here only to collect a paycheck and a pension and they’re not doing any service to you students.

Savion: If you just want to collect a paycheck, teaching isn’t for you. There are some teachers who need to go. They’ll come from different schools and it’s a culture shock. Some teachers can’t handle the pressure. They want a laid-back leadership. But sometimes you need that push. The push is only going to make you better. Sometimes I feel like this school has been run on leniency.

Do you feel the plan is still fuzzy?

Savion: It’s fuzzy to all of us.
Matthew: We’ve been working on this for a couple of months. I’m really happy we’ve come as far as we have. But there is still a lot of work to go.

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.