New Arrivals

New programs for teen parents on the way in Aurora

The Aurora school district's Early Beginnings building on the campus of Jamaica Child Development Center.

Over the next 12 months, pregnant and parenting teens in Aurora will see big changes in local educational options for themselves and their young children.

These include Tuesday’s opening of the new $2 million “Early Beginnings” center, which will provide up to 72 child care and preschool slots for the babies and young children of teen parents enrolled in Aurora Public Schools. The district is also replacing its underutilized teen parent outreach program with a new mobile team of advocates.

In addition, a new charter school serving pregnant and parenting teens in Aurora and northeast Denver is set to open in the fall of 2015. That school, called New Legacy Charter High School, will accommodate up to 100 high school students—teen fathers included—plus 70 young children at its on-site child care center to be run by Mile High Montessori. While the exact location has yet to be determined it is likely to be in the 80010 zip code.

Quick facts on Early Beginnings center
Replaces:
      District-run child care center at William Smith High School

Location:

      On the campus of Jamaica Child Development Center, 820 N. Jamaica St.

Includes:

      6 classrooms with up to 72 spots for infants, toddlers and preschoolers of teen parents in the district.

Project cost:

      $2 million

Funders:

      Donor-advised fund at the Denver Foundation, Foundation for Educational Excellence, Gates Family Foundation, Temple Hoyne Buell Foundation and Qualistar Colorado

First day:

      Tues., August 5

Grand opening:

      Wed., August 20, 5:30-6:30 p.m.

Administrators involved in the development of the new facilities and programs say the offerings reflect the need for more centrally-located facilities and responsive interventions to ensure pregnant or parenting teens stay in school and ultimately graduate.

“We have so many young mothers and young fathers,” said Deputy Superintendent William Stuart. “They need opportunities to remain engaged in school.”

Indeed, statistics shows that teen pregnancy and parenthood don’t bode well for school success. According to a brief from the advocacy group Colorado Youth Matter, 53 percent of Colorado young women who gave birth in 2011 didn’t finish high school or obtain a GED. In addition, nearly one-third of female students who dropped out of school cite pregnancy or parenthood as the primary reason for their decision.

“What are they going to do if they have no high school education?” asked Shirley Algiene, principal of Denver’s Florence Crittenton High School, which serves pregnant and parenting teens. “How are they going to take care of the baby?”

Need despite declining teen birth rates

Perhaps ironically, the development of Early Beginnings, New Legacy and the new teen parent outreach model over the last few years has coincided with gradual decreases in teen birth rates. In Colorado, the teen birth rate among youth ages 15-19 dropped 56 percent since 1991.

While advocates for teen pregnancy prevention herald such declines, they say there are still plenty of teenagers having babies, particularly in certain counties and demographic groups.

“It’s still not going down across the board,” said Lisa Olcese, executive director of Colorado Youth Matter.

For example, in Adams County, where part of the Aurora school district lies, there were 44.5 births per 1,000 females 15-19 during 2010-2012, compared to the Colorado average of 28.4.

Jennifer Douglas, the founder and principal of New Legacy, has drilled even deeper into local data as she’s planned the new school. She found that while there has been an overall decrease in the number of teens giving birth over the last decade in four zip codes in northeast Denver and northwest Aurora, the numbers actually increased slightly in 2013. A total of 182 teens, ages 14-18, had babies that year, up from 169 in 2012.

“Yes, there really is a need,’” said Douglas, who was formerly the director of new school development at the Colorado League of Charter Schools.

“At this point, even with the drop [in teen pregnancy] there are still of hundreds of students giving birth that need an educational option to help them finish school.”

Dwindling enrollment

For decades, Aurora’s “Young Parenting Program” was housed at William Smith High School, a small alternative high school that for many years was centrally located where Peoria Elementary School is now.

Enrollment by teen parents gradually dwindled after the school moved to a new building on the district’s east side in 2004 and a few years later adopted an expeditionary learning focus. At the end of last year, only three children of teen parents were enrolled in the 40 slots available at the school’s on-site nursery.

“Transportation was a big issue,” said Anita Walker, the district’s early childhood coordinator. “It was so far east it was challenging for parents to get to.”

In contrast, the Early Beginnings center is closer to the heart of the district on the same campus as Jamaica Child Development Center. It’s also less than a mile from Central High School, one of the district’s comprehensive high schools.

“A significant number of young parents reside in the north and northwest part of our district,” noted Stuart who helped oversee the former Young Parenting Program when he was principal of William Smith 15 years ago.

Administrators say the new center, which has two infant rooms, two toddler rooms and two preschool rooms, may not fill up immediately with children of teen parents, but the new four-member mobile outreach team is working on recruitment. Operating under the moniker “Young Parent Support Program,” the team includes two student engagement specialists, a health care specialist and a child care specialist.

The engagement specialists, who Stuart said may go door to door at times, will help pregnant or parenting teens re-connect with some type of educational program, whether it’s a traditional high school, New Legacy, an online high school or an alternative program focused on obtaining a GED or entering community college.

“We will reach far more young parents through the new format,” said Stuart.

In addition to the mobile team, there will be a family liaison and a nurse serving the campus where Early Beginnings is located, and eventually maybe a mental health professional as well.

Special schools for teen parents

Douglas first got the idea for New Legacy more than a decade ago when she visited Passages Charter School in Montrose. She was impressed with the school, which served pregnant and parenting teens, and realized that if the need existed in a small community like Montrose, it probably also existed in the much larger north Aurora and Denver region.

While Denver already has Florence Crittenton High School in the city’s southwest quadrant, Algiene is well aware that its quite a trek for some students. The school’s 130 high schoolers come from Denver and all corners of the metro area, including Aurora, Northglenn, and Jefferson County.

Algiene said three-quarters of her students rely on public transportation, facing the daily challenge of toting babies, diaper bags, back packs and strollers on buses or trains.

“I know it’s an issue to get over here,” she said. “I’m glad Aurora is opening up something.”

Coincidentally, Florence Crittenton will also be getting a new building next year, right across the street from its current location. The new space will include a school-based health center, room for 250 high school students and an on-site child care facility that will serve children from 6 weeks to four years old. (The school’s current child care facility only goes up to three years old.)

Despite the burst of new facilities coming over the next year, there’s a sense among the various administrators that the programs are complementary and will help fill a chronic gap. Douglas said she appreciates the new supports APS officials are putting into place for teen parents.

“I think the district recognized that that’s been a need and I’m really excited that they’re doing so much now,” she said. “We’re not in competition; we’re just options for students.”

For their part, APS administrators believe the planned opening of New Legacy next year coordinates nicely with their new programming.

“We want to demonstrate to our community that we have a commitment to these young students,” said Stuart.

This article originally misspelled the name of Aurora Deputy Superintendent William Stuart. We apologize for the error.

Incentives

Aurora’s school district is testing out a stipend for hard to staff positions

Math teacher Kelly Hutchings, in her class at Boston K-8 school in Aurora on March 3, 2015. (Photo By Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

The Aurora school district may experiment with paying some teachers and staff about $3,000, to see if the district can attract more candidates, fill more vacancies, and retain more employees.

The pilot plan has $1.8 million set aside for next school year to to attract and retain as many as 400 employees in hard-to-staff jobs. But in the long run, Superintendent Rico Munn said, the stipends could save Aurora money.

“This is a force multiplier,” Munn said. “If we can fill those positions ourselves, we can decrease our overall expenditures.”

Aurora’s stipends:
  • Nurses, psychologists, occupational therapists, and speech pathologists are eligible district-wide.
  • Special education teachers, secondary math teachers, or secondary science teachers are eligible at any of 20 targeted schools.
  • For employees who made an early commitment to return this fall: $3,000
  • For returning employees who don’t make an early commitment to return: $2,500
  • For new employees: $2,5000

Right now, when the district can’t fill certain critical positions, Munn said it must rely on contracting with agencies that help fill those jobs. There is an added cost paid to the agency.

The district’s school board is voting on the proposed budget on Tuesday. Officials say the money for the pilot program was set aside from a one-time increase of revenue the district received in the spring.

“We are really trying to be more strategic around how we recruit, retain, and develop our staff,” Munn said.

Over the past year, Aurora officials have focused on improving recruitment and retention. For instance, the next year’s budget proposal includes a request for about half a million dollars to send more principals through a University of Virginia training program.

This pilot, which the union opposed, would offer a stipend to all district nurses, psychologists, occupational therapists, and speech pathologists. Special education teachers, secondary math teachers, or secondary science teachers would be eligible if they work at any of 20 targeted schools.

The district selected schools that had higher turnover rates for these teachers than the district’s three-year average of 29 percent.

The stipend would be the same among jobs, but would vary if someone is a returning employee, or a new employee to the district.

In reviewing eligible positions, Munn said the district considered the number and length of existing vacancies, the number of applicants for those jobs, and how often the district had to seek help from an outside agency to fill them.

The district did not release detailed data on vacancies.

But in the case of nurses, psychologists, occupational therapists, and speech language pathologists, Aurora officials said they resorted to an outside agency to fill 27 vacancies in the 2017-18 school year. That’s out of approximately 160 employees serving in those jobs that year.

Munn said that the district will track data on fill rates, number of applicants, and vacancies to see if the stipends make a difference.

“I think we’ll certainly have the data come August,” Munn said. “If it’s not successful then we stop talking about it. If it, is then we start looking at in what circumstances.”

Several other school districts in Colorado and across the country provide stipends for hard-to-staff positions. Denver schools, for instance, offer incentives and bonuses for various duties, including working in a hard-to-serve school through their ProComp model. Research findings on the model have been mixed.

National research has found that hard-to-staff and performance bonuses can attract more candidates and increase retention, but knowing whether quality candidates are the ones staying is harder to say.

Julia Wigert, president of the Colorado Society of School Psychologists, said stipends could be one way to attract more candidates, especially if they reward those who have additional credentials, but said there are other important factor that might help.

“We believe the most effective way… is to offer a competitive salary along with supporting a comprehensive role for school psychologists,” Wigert said.

Bruce Wilcox, president of the teachers union, said he is concerned that the program creates inequities “for people who do the same jobs in different buildings.” He added that union leadership has done surveys of teachers and staff in the past and has found that money is not one of the top considerations for choosing to take a job.

In the case of Aurora, the results of the pilot, if successful, could be one consideration in the district decision on whether to ask for a tax increase this fall, or could also affect district negotiations with the union to create a new plan for paying teachers.

While Munn said he isn’t planning to advocate for basing salaries on performance or positions, he added that nothing is off the table.

Wilcox had said he seeks a more consistent way for teachers to get raises based on years of service and increases in education.

The list of 20 schools where some teachers will be eligible for stipends:

  • Aurora Central High School
  • Aurora Hills Middle School
  • Aurora West College Preparatory Academy
  • Boston P-8 School
  • Clyde Miller P-8 School
  • Columbia Middle School
  • Dalton Elementary School
  • Iowa Elementary School
  • Jamaica Child Development Center
  • Jewell Elementary School
  • Kenton Elementary School
  • Lyn Knoll Elementary School
  • Meadowood Child Development Center
  • North Middle School Health Sciences & Technology Campus
  • Paris Elementary School
  • Sixth Avenue Elementary School
  • Tollgate Elementary School
  • Vaughn Elementary School
  • Vista PEAK Preparatory
  • Wheeling Elementary School

choice

Aurora could get two new charter schools, both with a community focus

Two co-founders of Aurora Community School pose for a picture with supporters of the proposed school outside the board room. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Two new charter schools, both with a large focus on community involvement, could open in Aurora in 2019.

One, Aurora Community School, would serve K-8 students in northwest Aurora using the “community schools” model, in which the school is a hub for other community resources such as food assistance, a medical clinic, and adult classes.

The other, Empower Community High School, would be a high school in central Aurora. It was designed by a group of parents, students, and community members who want to use project-based learning, in which students learn through real-life scenarios and projects — but specifically catering the education to immigrant and refugee students.

Read the full charter school applications here:

“They are trying to do the best they can so that these people who look different can have somebody on their side,” said Kodjo Amouzou, one member of the design team who spoke to the Aurora school board Tuesday. “These people will not focus on what you cannot do, but instead what they are capable of.”

Aurora Public Schools has gradually reformed its position on charter schools. A series of changes in the last several years paved the way for new charter school options in the district, including last year’s approval of a school from the high-performing DSST network, which was invited to open in Aurora.

This year, district officials saw a spike in interest from applicants wanting to open their own charters in the district. Officials said they spoke with eight organizations who expressed interest earlier in the year. Later they received five letters of intent, and three submitted full applications. Two weeks ago, one of those applicants, a national organization of charter schools, withdrew their proposal.

District officials and committees evaluated the charter school applications this spring through a relatively new process that has continued to evolve. This year, for the first time, it included in-person interviews. The evaluation rubrics gave overall good scores to the two proposals, but district staff highlighted some areas where the applications weren’t as strong, including in their plans for educating students with special needs or who are learning English as a second language, in their budget projections, and in their facilities plans.

Finding a place to house a school is consistently one of the biggest challenges facing charter school operators in the state. In Aurora, one charter school, Vega Academy, is operating in a temporary location and struggling to find a building in the northwest area of the city that isn’t near a marijuana dispensary or liquor store.

Aurora Community School is planning to open in the same region of the district, but is considering operating in modular units set up on vacant land.

District officials had been concerned that Empower would not find a location to open in by 2019, but at Tuesday’s board meeting they said the school has now identified a location they are in the process of securing.

Board members seized on some of the concerns district officials had cited, specifically around the plan for educating students with special needs or who are those who are learning the English language.

Aurora’s board includes four members elected in November after highlighting their concerns with charter schools during their campaign. They said they worried about how the proposed charter schools might affect district-run schools. In northwest Aurora, where some charter schools already operate and where DSST is planning to open in 2019, enrollment numbers are dropping at a faster rate than other parts of the district.

Because schools are funded based on the number of students they enroll, some district-run schools in that part of town are struggling financially.

Other board members said the cost of creating a good option for students could be worth it.

“Having charters in our district affects our bottom line, but if a change to our bottom line raises the performance level of our students, I’m willing to mitigate that risk,” said board member Monica Colbert. “To say it affects our bottom line so we don’t look at choice, that’s bothersome to me.”

Board member Cathy Wildman pointed out that the area is gentrifying and questioned if the students the schools want to serve will still be there by the time the schools open.

Lamont Browne, the district’s director of autonomous schools, told the board the district is recommending the schools get approval to open. District officials are drafting proposed conditions that the schools would have to meet throughout the next year before they open.

The school board will vote on the district’s recommendations for the conditional approvals at a meeting June 19.