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.

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.