Roll call!

Aurora schools ramp up truancy interventions to keep students out of court

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Aurora Central High School students walk past the attendance office.

AURORA — Early Wednesday morning Aurora Central High School Principal Mark Roberts met with a student who has not attended a single day of school since the start of the school year.

Like he does with every student who is considered truant but wants to return to the classroom, he reviewed the student’s transcript and her options to either graduate or complete a GED program. He also spoke with the student and her mother about the student’s living conditions, her need to work, and her future goals.

“Each student has their struggle,” he said later in an interview. “It goes beyond just school. There are usually deeper issues attached to each student as to why they are not attending.”

Wednesday’s meeting is just one of many Roberts is likely to have this year.

As part of a recent reshuffling of districtwide resources and a renewed effort to address the social and emotional needs of students including their daily attendance, Aurora Public Schools has launched or expanded a series of initiatives to ensure more students are at their desks each day. That includes reaching out to students and their families early and often about the importance of attendance, identifying family needs and trying to meet them, and providing technology to parents to monitor their students classroom activities.

APS students who rack up more than four unexcused absences are considered truant. At Aurora Central High, the average student is likely to miss six times as many days, according to attendance data collected by the state. The school, mostly poor students of color with limited English skills, has the tenth highest truancy rate of any school in the entire state.

Reasons why students aren’t showing up for class at Aurora Central — or any school for that matter — include living in poverty, family trauma, or health-related issues, said Jocelyn Stephens, an APS administrator who oversees a cluster of schools including Aurora Central High.

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“You have to be present to learn,” Stephens said.

Making sure students are in class to learn is a critical task for the Aurora school system, which is entering its fourth year on the state’s accountability watch list. APS has two years to improve student test scores and its graduation rate or face state sanctions.

Like most school districts across the state, APS’s average daily attendance is stronger at its primary schools than at its secondary schools. About 96 percent of elementary school students are present each day, about 94 percent show up to their middle schools Monday through Friday, and 90 percent of high school students are there on time for first period.

But a closer look at individual schools’ average daily attendance shows grave disparities.

Aurora Quest K-8 has the highest daily attendance rate of all the suburb’s primary schools at 96.82 percent. That’s 11 points higher than the lowest, the Jamaica Child Development Center.

There’s about a three percentage point spread among APS’s middle schools, the lowest being 90 percent at North Middle School.

But the daily attendance gap is the widest at the high school level. At William Smith High, 93 percent of students show up regularly. At Aurora Central, barely 8 out of every 10 students are present each day.

While states are required to collect truancy data under federal law, each state may define truancy as it sees fit. That makes it difficult to compare attendance trends across state lines and identify solutions to a common problem.

But according to school attendance expert Hedy Chang, director of Attendance Works, the most common attendance data — average daily attendance and truancy percentages — masks what she considers a significant and neglected problem they call “chronic absenteeism.” That’s when a student misses more than 10 percent of the school year, or two days per month, according to Attendance Works.

Research completed by Chang and others has discovered a strong correlation between attendance and student achievement. The more school a student misses, Chang said, the more likely that student is to be behind grade level and to eventually dropout.

“Chances are very slim a chronically absent student will be as successful as his or her peers,” Chang said.

Among Attendance Works’ suggestions to combat chronic absenteeism: track both excused and unexcused absences and engage families early and often about the importance of perfect attendance. Further, schools should reward students and families for their daily participation not punish them.

“There are still places that suspend students for being truant,” Chang said. “Who would reward a student with a suspension for being truant — it just doesn’t make sense.”

Schools should also understand why students are missing school and not jump to any conclusions, Chang said.

“I really worry that in low income schools, when a kid doesn’t show up to school, what’s the reaction?” Chang said. “The parents don’t care. [Some teachers] have no idea of the issues related to that family. So what happens, the teacher’s reaction is to blame the kid, or blame the parent, and it further alienates the family.”

APS does not track chronic absenteeism in the same fashion as Attendance Works has for some school districts. But officials said they’re beginning to pay more attention to excused absences as much as unexcused absences.

The local focus now appears to be three-fold: empower schools to proactively monitor attendance, provide whatever service is available to and needed by families of students who are at risk of becoming truant, and keep students out of the truancy court system.

“Schools are encouraged to respond right away,” Stephens, the school network director said, but also on a case-by-case basis. No two absences are alike. The most common response to a missed day is a phone call or home visit.

Schools, especially those who serve predominantly poor students, are beefing up their services. Family centers that provide food, clothing, and other resources are opened at Jewell and Crawford elementary schools. The aim is to engage the whole family, explain the importance of school, and to eliminate as many barriers as possible to make sure the students are in their desks every day.

Student engagement directors are working with teams of school officials to reach out to students — especially at the high school level — after a second or third unexcused absence. Previously those directors only became involved after a fourth absence that could triggered a trip truancy court.

“It’s a tedious process,” said Chris Vann, an APS student engagement advocate, referring to truancy court. There are generally multiple court dates spread across several months and most students leave the system with little more than a societal stigma.

As for the Aurora Central High student who has missed every day of class since August? She’ll be in class, not court.

“We discussed at length the options available at Aurora Central and asked her to commit to one of the success plans presented that fits her current situation,” said Roberts, the school’s principal. “She is being enrolled and has a solid plan in place to finish school.”

Feeling flexible

How five Aurora schools in an “innovation zone” are making budget decisions to meet their own needs

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Crawford Elementary School Principal Jenny Passchier observed a writing lesson in October 2015.

When Aurora Public Schools went looking for ways to save money earlier this year, one casualty was a district-wide contract for a service that provides a translator on the phone when one is not available in person.

The decision could have hurt Crawford Elementary School, where students speak about 35 languages and the service is used at least weekly— more at the start of the school year.

But Principal Jenny Passchier was not without options. As one of five schools that comprise Aurora Public Schools’ year-old innovation zone, Crawford has greater autonomy from district rules and budgeting decisions.

So when school resumed a couple of weeks ago, families at the five innovation zone schools got phone calls they could understand because leaders of the schools chose to keep paying for the translation and drop other district services to make up the difference.

“It’s very critical that we have some way to get ahold of our families,” Passchier said. “Especially in maybe more informal situations. We don’t always have translators that are readily available in person, so that was a critical piece that we needed to keep.”

That decision provides a window into what autonomy looks like in Aurora’s innovation zone, Superintendent Rico Munn’s biggest reform bet to date to lift achievement in a district with a challenging student population and poor academic track record.

With the innovation zone, Aurora officials are turning to a school model that other districts across the state and country have tried, with mixed results. Innovation status provides schools charter school-like autonomy, but the schools are operated by the district instead of independently.

The five schools in northwest Aurora started rolling out their innovation plans last school year.

Taking advantage of the state’s innovation law, APS officials created the zone to give schools greater flexibility from some state laws, union or district policies so principals could govern things like curriculum, hiring practices, school calendars and budgets in ways that might improve achievement at their schools.

Last year, in the first year of innovation status, district officials worked with principals of the five schools in the zone to figure out what district services they could do without, and what extra services they wanted to pay for with the money they might have instead.

Principals started by looking at what their school needed help with and then district officials worked with them to analyze how well the existing services worked.

In the case of the TeleLanguage service, district officials calculated that the average district school used the translation service for about 909 minutes, or about 15 hours, per school year. But each of the five schools in the innovation zone used the service for about 2,978 minutes per school year — about three times as often as the average district school.

After the analysis, the five schools decided to drop several services, including some from the district’s human resources department, and in exchange the schools were given about $500,000 extra in the 2017-18 budget.

How the money is being spent

  • Translation services, $14,000
  • Health Sciences Academy at Aurora Central, $30,000
  • College and career services, $30,000
  • Parent support budget for Student Engagement Advocate, $5,000
  • Talent acquisition and marketing budget, $40,000
  • Three full-time positions, $305,189
  • Individual school supports: Crawford, $20,000; Paris, $20,000; Boston K-8, $20,000; Aurora West, $30,000; Aurora Central, $36,000

“I led all five principals through the process of evaluating the needs of their schools,” said Lamont Browne, executive director of autonomous schools, including the innovation zone. “My approach was very much facilitating what ideas they had for who they were.”

As a zone, the five schools created three new positions with the extra $500,000. The schools hired a student engagement advocate to help communicate with families and improve student attendance (a position that would no longer exist at the district level); a director of instruction and leadership development; and a director of talent and acquisition to pick up some of the district HR department’s traditional duties.

The woman hired for that last role already has helped the five schools fill positions that still were open as school started.

Passchier described the budget redesign process as collaborative and said she spent a lot of time reflecting on her school’s needs.

“We were able to identify what are the zone-wide themes that we can support, but also what are unique things we need at the school level,” Browne said.

Each school made ia case for its own funding needs. For instance, Aurora Central High School hired an additional student engagement advocate that would be dedicated just to the 2,000-student high school. One of the staff person’s primary responsibilities: helping improve poor attendance.

Passchier said Crawford staff wanted to continue some reading work they’d done with a grant that was ending. The school is now using about $5,000 to continue work with a consultant the school found helpful in teaching students to read.

Officials say it’s too early to know how well the redesigned budget is working for the schools, but Passchier said she’s already seeing benefits two weeks into the school year.

The director of student engagement, who will work with the five schools to help them engage families and students with a goal of increasing attendance, already has been at Crawford several times, Passchier said.

Browne said that if principals find other district services they want to reconsider or analyze as the school year unfolds, the budget for the five schools may change.

Correction: This post has been updated to reflect that the innovation schools dropped use of just some of the services from the district’s human resources department.

On the right track

Aurora state test results mostly moving in positive direction

Students at Aurora's Boston K-8 school in spring 2015. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post).

Aurora Public Schools officials are optimistic after seeing their latest state test scores, a major factor in whether the district will pull itself off the state’s watchlist for chronic poor performance.

The number of eighth graders that met or exceeded expectations on English tests increased by more than the state average. The district’s lowest performing school, Aurora Central High School, nearly doubled the number of ninth graders meeting or exceeding expectations on their English tests.

Another Aurora school, William Smith High School, had the state’s fourth highest median growth percentile for English tests. That means that on PARCC English tests, those students showed improvements on average better than 89 percent of Colorado kids who started with a similar test score from the year before.

But the increases of how many Aurora third graders met expectations on English tests weren’t as big as the average increase across the state. The improvements also still leave the district with far fewer students proficient than in many nearby districts or compared to state averages.

“There’s evidence there that there has been some really hard work by our kids and our staff,” Superintendent Rico Munn said. “We’ve hit a mile marker in a marathon. But we fully recognize we have a lot of work left to do.”

Aurora Public Schools is the only Colorado district at risk of facing state action next year if state ratings don’t improve this fall. Those ratings will in part be based on the state test data made public Thursday. Munn said he has a “positive outlook” on what the data could mean for the district’s rating.

Disaggregated test data also seemed promising. While gaps still exist between students who qualify for free or reduced price lunch and those who don’t, the gap has shrunk. English language learners are performing better than native English speakers in both math and English language arts tests.

The trends are similar in other metro area districts, but Munn said there are some changes that might be responsible for the better performance by students who are learning English.

The district made changes in how schools teach English by including English language development throughout the school day rather than just during a specific time of day.

The district’s overall median growth scores also increased and reached above 50 for English language arts. For students to make at least a year’s growth, they must have a score of at least 50, something especially important in districts like Aurora where a lot of students are behind grade level.

Aurora’s five innovation zone schools, the biggest reform superintendent Munn has rolled out, saw mixed results. Last fall, the five schools each started working on plans the district and state approved giving them flexibility from some district or union rules and state laws.

Find your school’s scores
Search for your school’s growth scores in Chalkbeat’s database here, or search for your school’s test results and participation rates in Chalkbeat’s database here.

For instance, Boston K-8 school, one that was celebrated last year, had big increases in the number of sixth graders meeting standards on English tests, but big decreases in the number of eighth graders that do.

Central High School, another school in the zone, and one that is now on a state action plan because of low performance, had a median growth percentile of 57 for English tests, meaning the school’s students on average had improvements better than 57 percent of Colorado students when comparing them to students who had similar test scores the prior year. But the math growth score was 46 — below the 50 that is considered a year’s worth of growth.

Central also had a decrease when compared to last year in the number of students that did well on a math test taken by the largest number of students, or more than 400.

Munn pointed out that schools had only started working on the changes in their innovation plans months before students took these tests and said district officials aren’t yet attributing the results, negative or positive, to the reforms.

Some of the data for the individual schools was not released publicly as part of the state’s efforts to protect student privacy when the number of students in a certain category is low.

Districts do have access to more data than the public, and Munn said educators in Aurora will continue to analyze it, school by school, to figure out what’s working and what needs to change.

David Roll, principal of Aurora’s William Smith High School, said the test results for his school were somewhat unexpected.

“I was hoping we would continue to show growth, but I was anticipating an implementation dip,” Roll said. “What this is beginning to demonstrate to us in strong terms is that this is a powerful way for students to learn. And by the way it also shows up on their testing.”

The school, an expeditionary learning school which relies on projects and field work, made a change last year to eliminate typical subject courses and instead have students enroll in two projects per semester which each incorporate learning standards from the typical subjects such as history, English and math.

“We always envisioned we were working toward that,” Roll said.

Here’s how William Smith High School ranked on growth scores for English tests: