Turn in your badge

Digital “merit badges” coming to Aurora Public Schools

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
An Aurora Public Schools bus picks up students after school.

Digital merit badges — think of a cross between a report card and a Girl Scout badge — are coming to Aurora Public Schools.

The district is planning to introduce the online credentialing system to 19 APS schools this fall and to all schools by 2016. The badges, which students earn by demonstrating skills in the areas of collaboration, critical thinking, information literacy, invention and self-direction, are displayed online through student profiles. The idea is that colleges and employers could then access the profiles to see students’ skills when making hiring and admissions decisions.

The idea of awarding students digital badges was developed at a Mozilla Foundation conference in 2010 and has since spread to some higher education programs and, less commonly, K-12 schools. Badge proponents argue that the online tool helps integrate academic and soft skills.

Chalkbeat spoke to Charles Dukes, the director of Postsecondary Workforce Readiness for APS, and APS Director of Educational Technology Kevin Riebau, who explained how the badges will work and why the district is choosing to use them.

What is the simplest way to describe “digital badging”? 

Dukes: Digital badging is an online platform that documents and records students “soft skills” or what we call 21st century skills: critical thinking, invention, self-direction, collaboration, and information literacy.

Riebau: Another word you might use is “micro-credential.” It really is a skill currency used to open up opportunities because you earned the badge, you can cash the badge in for opportunities otherwise maybe not available if you didn’t have the badge.

What is the step-by-step process for a student to receive a badge? 

Riebau: So the student will be made aware of the digital badge and will see what the criteria is for earning that badge. Then, what the student will do is familiarize themself with the criteria and they will set out to fulfill the criteria. What we’re asking for is the student to provide the evidence that they have fulfilled the criteria, so they might  choose to take a picture or a video, or link to a blog that they write…any kind of multimedia or some sort of product they have created that is uploaded and attached to the badge that shows they have fulfilled the criteria. It’s their evidence. When they’ve done that then the teacher who issues that badge takes a look at the evidence and says “yes” or “no” to if they have met the criteria. If it has met the criteria, then the teacher will issue the badge to the student. All of this takes place online, by the way. We have a badge platform that allows for the designing, issuing and earning of badges so then the student is filling out their digital repository of badges, they have an account and they start to populate it with badges they’ve earned.  Then because the student has earned the badge now, the badge is a skill currency, so they should be able cash that badge in for an opportunity. For instance, if they’re in high school, attached to that badge (because you’ve earned it) that unlocks an opportunity to have an internship with one of our partners during the summer. They can show that they have that badge and then get be bumped to the top of the list or just given the internship.

It’s different for different grade levels. For middle schoolers, it might be a job shadow, elementary might be a visit by somebody from the company- it just depends.

How does a student benefit from this if the badge doesn’t apply to a participating company or organization?

Dukes: The goal for the whole initiative is that we have a lot of partners that belong to all of our Colorado career clusters , so we open doors for multiple partners from business to agriculture. If a student receives a badge and we don’t have a partner for the specific badge, it still gives the student the criteria they need to know to be successful in the workforce, so they’ll have a better understanding of what they need to do be to be successful in their specific field and they can plan toward that.

What distinguishes a badge from a skill listed on a resumé? How are these two things different? 

Dukes: The big difference is on a resumé you may have the language “I’m a critical thinker” but on a badge you have the evidence that shows you’re a critical thinker. So when you post your badge on say LinkedIn…a student can show examples of them demonstrating critical thinking.

Riebau: It’s that added level of accountability because there’s evidence and it’s not just words you put on a resumé, it’s action.

What factors will you measure at or what will you look at to determine if digital badging is succeeding at APS?

Dukes: We’ll look at the type of badges that are earned and how badges are being used. And how these badges and the use of badges are having a positive impact on behavior, attendance and ultimately graduation and college matriculation or workforce matriculation.

Riebau: Also, we’ve established a feedback loop with our business partners where we get input for them. For instance, say a student got an internship because they cashed in certain badges, then we can put from the industry partner who says…the student has demonstrated these skills and they are an asset to our company and we would eventually like to hire them.

intent to apply

Five groups may present charter applications this year to open in Aurora

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Mauricio Jackson, from left, Raymond Hurley and Adrian Rocha sit in the gym at University Prep charter school before loading on the bus for the ride home.

Five groups have signaled their intent to apply to open a charter school in the Aurora school district.

Based on the letters of interest, which were submitted last week, the five possible applications that Aurora could see this year include one high school, a Denver-grown charter school, and one tied to a national charter management organization.

Groups are required to submit a letter of intent a month before they submit a full application. In Aurora Public Schools, the deadline for applications is March 9.

District officials and two committees would review the applications that are submitted and present a recommendation to the Aurora school board before a vote in June. The earliest schools would open would be fall 2019.

Last year the district received only one application from a charter network that was invited to apply. That was for a DSST school, the high-performing Denver charter network, that is approved to open its first Aurora school in the fall of 2019. Based on this year’s letters of intent, there could be five applications.

Denver-based charters have started to express interest in moving to the suburbs as the low-income families they serve leave the city and as the Denver district slows the pace at which it seeks new schools. The national network KIPP is one charter network looking at possible suburban locations, though KIPP leadership won’t make a decision until this summer about where and didn’t submit a letter of intent to Aurora this round.

Here is a look at each of the five proposed schools with links to their letters of intent:

budding issue

Aurora superintendent says no to charter school locating near marijuana shop

Students of Vega Collegiate Academy in Aurora, Colo. Photo provided by Vega Collegiate Academy.

Update: The State Board of Education on Feb. 15 dismissed an appeal from Vega Collegiate Academy and told the school to go through the mediation process outlined in its contract with the district.

A charter school looking to move out of a church basement as it expands into more grades next year has halted its plans after the Aurora school district rejected the school’s desired location — near a pot shop.

City and district officials say it’s the first time the issue has come up in Aurora since marijuana retail businesses began opening in the fall of 2014.

State law prevents marijuana stores from opening within 1,000 feet of a school, but it doesn’t address schools opening near existing marijuana businesses. Vega Collegiate Academy’s contract with the district states the superintendent must approve any relocation. In this case, he didn’t.

Vega officials had already spent $40,000 on traffic studies, building plans, and deposits for the space at Colfax and Galena, about a mile from its current location in a church in northwest Aurora. Many parents had seen some plans and were excited about the expansion and larger space that might allow for more programming such as yoga or art.

Charter school officials appealed the denial – first to the school district and now to the State Board of Education. The final purchase of the site, and the remodeling that would have had to taken place to have students move in this fall, are on hold.

Kathryn Mullins, the founder and executive director of Vega, told the school board last week that the denial sends a bad message to the school’s students.

“Your denial of our space has told our children and families that it’s O.K. to live there, just not to go to school there,” Mullins said. “That is unacceptable.”

Because of the pending legal challenge, Aurora Public School officials said they would not comment on the denial. But in a letter to the school, Superintendent Rico Munn said the location – 300 feet from a marijuana dispensary – raises concerns. In trying to reconsider his decision, he noted he reviewed parent support letters, maps, crime data, and research about crime near marijuana dispensaries.

“I continue to have concerns,” Munn’s letter states. “I have not found anything to change my original denial.”

Vega school officials said that finding a location for the school was “a Herculean accomplishment in Colorado’s tight commercial market,” according to appeal documents.

The proposed building, a three-story retail building most recently housing a barber shop, is next to a Dollar General and was attractive in part, because it is close to where families of current students live and because of the large size.

“Our children deserve to go to a quality school close to their home,” Mullins told the board. “Our children and families should not be punished because of where they live or what facilities currently exist in our community.”

Proposed location at 10180 E. Colfax Ave.

Vega opened in August, enrolling almost 100 kindergarten and fifth graders. The plan is to expand by two grade levels a year until the school serves kindergarten through eighth grade. A high percentage of families in the northwest Aurora area live in poverty — a population Vega officials want to serve.

The proposed school site on Colfax has an entrance in the back that opens south onto a parking lot so that students would not have to enter from Colfax. An alleyway connects the parking lot to a strip mall with a Starbuds dispensary whose entrance faces west.

Reached on Friday, Brian Ruden, one of the owners of the Starbuds pot shop, said he was not aware of the possibility of a school relocating there.

In Denver, analysis done by the city and by the Denver Post in 2016 found more than 20 schools that are located within 1,000 feet of a marijuana store. In most cases, the schools moved in after the marijuana shop.

DPS officials did not respond to a request for comment about how they make decisions for school locations near marijuana shops.

The connection between crime and marijuana has been contentious and definitive evidence does not exist.

The 1,000-foot buffer was created by the state in 2012 after federal officials sent letters to medical marijuana shops informing them that they would enforce federal drug laws near schools. Federal prosecutors have generally followed a policy of not going after businesses that follow state law, but it’s not clear how aggressive the current administration will be on imposing federal enforcement in states that have legalized marijuana sales.

Vega employees, parents, and community members also spoke to the Aurora school board Tuesday about the decision. Mullins, the founder, said more than 200 parents, employees, and community members packed the board meeting, many with signs in support of Vega’s relocation. Thirty-five people signed up to speak, but because of the lengthy list, the school board limited the speakers to four.

“It would be very close to my home and so would make life a lot easier for me as an older person raising kids,” one grandmother told the school board.

The woman, who said she has lived in the neighborhood for decades, said she knows the area has a bad reputation, but said locating a school in a building that has often been empty could help change that.

Another mother, Arely Suarez, who said her fifth-grade daughter attends the school, told the school board in Spanish that the students need the bigger space.

“The kids have a right to a good education,” Suarez said. “As far as the marijuana dispensaries, this is a factor at the state level, it’s not just a factor that is affecting the Aurora school district.”

The legal challenge the state must first consider is whether it has jurisdiction for the appeal. Vega officials asked for the appeal, saying the district is imposing unreasonable conditions on the charter school.

But the Aurora district argued in filings that they have authority over the decision. The filings state the state board does not have jurisdiction because the superintendent, not the Aurora school board, made the decision, and because the dispute is not an unreasonable condition. The district argues the charter school should first remedy the conflict according to a process outlined in their contracts that would include mediation.

Either process could stretch out for months.

This story was updated to reflect more accurate information about the building.