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: Nicholas 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.

'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.”