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.

take note

Aurora is rolling out new curriculum to catch up with how teachers teach writing

A fourth grader in Aurora's Peoria Elementary takes notes while reading. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

After fourth-graders at Aurora’s Peoria Elementary read “Tiger Rising” as a group last week, several excitedly shot up their hands to explain the connections they had made.

“It’s not just a wood carving, it represents their relationship,” one student said about an object in the book. Others talked about another symbol, the lead character’s suitcase, while one student wondered about the meaning of the story’s title.

Nick Larson’s class rushed back to their desks, excited about what they had learned and ready to look for symbols in their own books during independent reading time. As they read, students filled their books, including the “Lost Treasure of the Emerald Eye,” “Because of Winn-Dixie” and “Super Sasquatch Showdown,” with sticky notes about what they were noticing in the text.

It’s one small way Aurora teachers are integrating writing and reading, a practice officials refer to as “balanced literacy.” It means reading about writing, and writing about reading. It’s not a new teaching practice, but the district has spent $4.7 million on new literacy curriculum from two different sources — schools get to pick one — to help teachers combine those lessons.

The materials replace curriculum adopted in 2000.

At Peoria, a school of about 429 students, of which approximately 90 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty, teachers were using some of the new curriculum last year. Larson, who also coaches other teachers half of the day, said he pushes students to think about what the author might have wanted them to feel. He asks students to write about the characters in the books they read, to better understand them.

“We’re trying to make connections throughout the day,” Larson said.

The previous literacy materials called for teaching reading and writing separately, and some didn’t include writing. They also no longer aligned with standards that the state changed in 2010.

An internal Aurora audit found different schools using a wide variety of resources as they supplemented the out-of-date curriculum.

And this fall, district staff found another reason why the new curriculum was necessary.

In dissecting state test results, Aurora discovered that about 40 percent of its third-through-eighth-graders earned zero points on certain writing sections of the test.

“We’ve got to address that,” said Andre Wright, Aurora’s chief academic officer. “You can’t leave that level of opportunity on the table. We just can’t do that.”

Starla Pearson, the district’s executive director of curriculum and instruction, explained that she expects to see changes soon.

“With the literacy curriculum that is in place right now, I have great confidence,” Pearson said. “We did not have something that specific, looking at writing instruction.” All of the curriculum now, she said, does include writing resources.

“This gives me such encouragement on the one hand because it’s a pretty simple fix … you’re seeing a real clear path to increasing points,” said Debbie Gerkin, an Aurora school board member. “The discouraging part is why wasn’t this happening?”

But about three-quarters of Aurora schools were already using the writing half of the curriculum before this year. Now all elementary and middle schools will use both the reading and writing parts of the district’s newly adopted curriculum. The district is now reviewing potential changes to high school curriculum.

District officials told the board that it’s possible the change in state tests in 2015 may have also contributed to the low scores. Previously, students took separate reading and writing tests and earned separate scores. The new state tests ask students to read a passage, and then respond to it in writing, combining the subjects.

Aurora officials said they didn’t have a way to compare the results they found with other districts. Colorado and most districts do not have comparable detailed results on segments of the state tests.

Wright said this information has prompted him to ask many questions internally. For starters, Aurora will focus training for teachers on combining reading and writing lessons. The district has spent $180,000 to provide teacher training on using the new resources.

But Bruce Wilcox, the president of the Aurora teachers union, said that teachers have been concerned about the limited time they had to learn and explore the new materials, which were only provided to them a few weeks before classes started.

Pearson said early anecdotal feedback has been positive.

“Teachers are saying, ‘thank you, we have a resource,’” she said.

Larson, who was one of 36 teachers from 10 schools who got to review and recommend which curriculum the district should adopt, said he likes several aspects of the materials.

“I feel like I’m being pushed as a teacher,” Larson said.

The district plans to survey teachers about the materials, and will look at internal test data throughout the year, as well as writing results next year to look for improvements.

“We will see a difference,” Pearson said.

blueprint

Shrinking here, expanding there, Aurora district wants to hear your thoughts on how to handle growing pains

A student at Vista Peak in Aurora works on an assignment. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

The Aurora school district faces sharply dropping enrollment in its northwest corner, but anticipates tracts of new homes filled with students to the east in coming years. To help figure out how it should manage its campuses, the district is turning to the public.

The district held its first of four public meetings Wednesday, and has launched an online survey to gather more input. About 20 attendees Wednesday afternoon answered questions about their thoughts on Aurora — an overwhelming majority said it’s diversity that makes the district unique — on the most important thing schools should have — most said good academic programs — and expressed a desire for more science-technology-engineering-and-math programs, as well as dual-language programs.

Then participants talked with moderators from an outside consultant group hired by the district, while district staff and board members floated around listening to conversations.

The district seeks to address challenges explained to the school board last year, posed by declining, and uneven, enrollment.

In the east of the district, development is planned on empty land near E-470 and out to Bennett, and schools may be needed.

In historic, central Aurora, bordering Denver, gentrification is causing one of the district’s fastest drops in enrollment. But because many of those schools were so crowded, and are typically older buildings, the schools may still need building renovations, which would require an investment.

Aurora district officials told the school board they needed a long-term plan that can support the vision of the district when making facilities decisions.

The decisions may also affect how the district works with charter schools. Enrollment numbers show more families are sending their children to charter schools, and the district is asking questions to find out why.

The online survey, translated into the district’s most common 10 languages other than English, includes questions about why parents choose Aurora schools, what kinds of programs the district should expand, and about whether school size should be small or large.

The survey will be online until Sept. 24.

In the next phase of planning, a task force will draw from community input to draft possible “scenarios.” That task force includes one teacher and several officials from the district and other organizations such as the Aurora Chamber of Commerce, the Aurora branch of the NAACP and the Rotary Club of Aurora. The members include high-profile names such as Skip Noe, the former Aurora city manager who is now chief financial officer of Community College of Aurora, and William Stuart, one of the district’s former deputy superintendents.

A second task force of Aurora district officials will create action plans for the different scenarios.

Both groups will meet through December.

The next public meetings where you can provide your input are:

  • Thursday, Sept. 6, 6 p.m.
    Vista PEAK Preparatory, 24500 E. 6th Ave.
  • Saturday, Sept. 15, 10 a.m.
    Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, 10100 E. 13th Ave.
  • Monday, Sept. 17, 6 p.m.
    Mrachek Middle School, 1955 S. Telluride St.