no holds barred

Aurora Central grad: ‘Stop feeling sorry’ for poor kids

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Yamel Ramierez graduated from Aurora Central High School in 2015.

Yamel Ramirez has beaten the odds.

The daughter of an immigrant, Ramirez grew up poor, bounced between different neighborhoods and schools, and at one point was homeless.

Finally settled in the Original Aurora neighborhood, she graduated on time from Aurora Central High School, a school labeled as failing by the state for five years. And she just finished her first semester at Colorado State University-Pueblo with a 3.6 grade point average.

“I’m trying to give myself a life I think I deserve,” she said recently while on break between the fall and spring semesters.

Last year, Ramirez was a strong advocate for Aurora Central, which is being redesigned in an effort to boost student achievement and stave off state sanctions. She and two of her classmates spoke in front of the Aurora school board about proposed changes at Central. They knew Aurora Central had a bad rap and was in need of improvement, but there were good teachers and students trying hard at the school too, they reminded the board.

During our conversation, Ramirez reflected on her last year at Aurora Central, what changes she hopes take hold at the school and the struggles of student loans.

She also took to task the apathy she said she observed among some Aurora Central students, teachers and administrators.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

For those of us too old to remember, what is it like to graduate from high school?
It’s bittersweet. Like at any high school, you build a lot of relationships with the people you study with and teachers. It is also really sad to see how many people don’t make it to graduation. That was a really outstanding and concerning number. But I was happy to have graduated from Central — I feel like I’m an example to kids at Central (that) you can go to college.

One of the things we know is that Aurora has one of the lowest graduation rate in the metro area. Fewer than  60 percent of students graduate on time. Why do you think that is?
It makes a difference that there are so many minorities living in Aurora. I really believe that it’s important not to ignore the fact that there are things going on here in Aurora and other places that have to do with how things work systemically.

But for lack of a better term, there’s a lot of B.S. There’s a lot of excuses that to me can be figured out. Like parent involvement and the fact that students aren’t using all the resources they have. It’s a lack of motivation.

I’ve gone to a lot of schools in Colorado. My freshman year I attended a charter school in Brighton. The norm was to do well. Ninety-four percent of students were on honor roll. To fit in, you had to care about your education. And I don’t see that in these kids in Aurora. Kids at an elementary school who will likely go to Central one day, they’re already saying, “I don’t like school, I don’t like school.” And they’re like 7- and 8-years-olds.

I guess I was just always taught to value an education.

Ramirez, left, and two other Aurora Central students addressed the school board in 2015.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Ramirez, left, and two other Aurora Central students addressed the school board in 2015.

What can teachers and administrators do to overcome that mentality?
I see teachers who do try. One example is Mr. (Corey) Price at Central. He goes out of his way to make sure his lectures reach students. If he sees a student is struggling with the way he teaches, he’ll find a way to make sure you get it. I feel like, on the contrary, there are teachers who just give you a worksheet and when you can’t figure it out, they just pin you as someone who isn’t going to try. Some of these kids have no idea of what they’re looking at on these worksheets. It’s not a matter of not wanting to do it, it’s that they don’t know how to.

Do you think a school system like APS can turn that cultural tide at the student level to really make it a place where learning happens?
It will take a lot of time. It’s important to recognize that. There’s been a lot of years of damage to the students, the school, the teachers. APS and Aurora Central gets a lot of crap from everyone.

I felt like there was a community at Aurora Central. But I know a lot of kids don’t feel the same way. And I feel like that is really important: To make sure everyone feels like we can do better together. It’s a domino effect, If one cool kid tries really hard at his or her studies, others will think, “Maybe I should try to get something out of this education that is being provided to me for free.”

What needs to change at Aurora Central to make it a better school?
I think that everyone needs to stop feeling bad for the students at Central. They just need to put their foot down. We get a lot of pity and sorrow. “Oh, they’re just poor kids and refugees. That’s why they’re test scores are so low.”

Free and reduced lunch had nothing to do with the grades I had.

Stop feeling sorry for the kids. Students need adults who want to see change. I don’t think it’s wanted bad enough for the kids there. Maybe it is. I could be wrong.

Do you feel Aurora Central prepared you for a four-year college?
I feel I prepared myself. I took the initiative, which a lot of students lack. The resources and the people who want to help you are there. I love Central and I will always love Central. I took from Central 19 college credit hours for free (through concurrent enrollment, a state program that allows high school students to take college level classes). A lot of students are missing these opportunities. Students need to take greater advantage of the resources provided to them. When you don’t take advantage of these resources, you only perpetuate your status.

What are your college classes like?
I love my college classes. I think the curriculum is easier to manage for myself because I learn that way. I’m a great note-taker and I love to listen. I know some people can’t learn that way. They’re more hands-on. That’s the thing, they assess those skills at the university. I took a really long survey on my thinking skills, how I learn, what I’m most comfortable learning. It was spot-on. For me, school comes naturally.

I much prefer a college classroom versus a high school classroom. Everyone knows why they’re there and what they’re paying for. You’re paying a lot of the seat you’re sitting in.

It sounds like you’ve had a pretty good transition. But I can’t imagine everything about college has been easy?
In a sense it humbles you. I earned a 3.6 GPA last semester. Out of the six classes I had, I earned five As. But I also earned a C+. And that really crushed me. I remember at one point, I just started crying. I said to myself, “This isn’t me. I don’t perform at this level.” I tried to change my study habits, I tried to see why I just wasn’t grasping the concept.

I also felt a little under-prepared in the loan aspect. I was in a program my senior year at Central that taught me about financial aid and how student loans work. But I underestimated how much I would need to borrow. I earned scholarships and grants, but I still had to take out a lot of money. And to me that is really scary. I didn’t know that if I didn’t have that money in hand, I wouldn’t be able to register for classes for the spring semester. I felt like I just started and I was being stopped. That was a really big wakeup call.

How much did you have to borrow this year?
Fifty-five hundred dollars. It’s hard. No matter how much you prepare, you never really know how much you’re about to spend on college. I think that’s why a lot of people are discouraged. Especially those of the lower class. You know APS has a lot of at-risk students. And I think that’s a factor. There’s nothing that can save you from that. You just have to accept you’re going to be broke for a while.

So if you graduate on time, you’ll borrow about $22,000.
It’s discouraging. This is why you hear about students who graduate and then live in their parents’ basements. But this is what I love to do. I love to learn. I love to have knowledge. The more you know, the more you can help out your own community. It’s important for me to get back to Central to be a role model for students — even if it’s just one out 100.

What is keeping you in college?
The life that I had before. I don’t want to go back to that. It’s so sad to see the kids I went to high school with still doing the same thing with their lives and seeing them not wanting to push forward and do other things. It’s a really vicious cycle. A big motivation is not wanting to fit in the system. I’m trying to give myself a life I think I deserve.

At my university, the kids are just overwhelmed. Another Central graduate, he dropped out because his parents were pushing him to drop out. They lived off his income. They needed him home to afford life, groceries. He felt like he held that responsibility. He wasn’t going to class. He just went home. He called my boyfriend and he cried. He said it was the biggest mistake of his life.

Is there anything lawmakers can do to prevent college dropouts?
More financial support.

What should freshmen at Aurora Central be thinking about right now about college?
To be frank, parties and weed and alcohol are going to exist forever. You don’t have to make that a priority. You have a lot of time to party and do what you please. But that’s not what school is for. It’s not a social party. It’s not a red carpet. You go to school to learn for free. I want them to appreciate their education. How you get them to do that, I have no idea.

What could make it easier for more students to go to college and succeed?
I think more students should get involved in programs like concurrent enrollment and college-prep program like the one I was in. Once you get that foot in the door at a college or university, you don’t want to step out. Once students see all the potential, all the things they can learn, all the programs and clubs, they’ll never want to leave.


Struggling Aurora elementary must decide next steps on recommendations

Teachers at Lyn Knoll Elementary should get more than 20 minutes per day for planning, school officials should consider switching to a district-selected curriculum for literacy, and the school should find a way to survey neighborhood families who send their children to school elsewhere.

Those are some of the recommendations for improvement presented to Aurora’s school board this week by a committee overseeing the work at Lyn Knoll.

But because the school has a status that allows it more autonomy, those recommendations cannot be turned into mandates, committee members told the school board this week. Instead, school officials must now weigh these suggestions and decide which they might follow.

Bruce Wilcox, president of the Aurora teachers union and member of the joint steering committee, said he doesn’t expect every recommendation “to come to fruition,” but said whether or not each recommendation is followed is not what’s important.

“It really will come down to, is improvement made or not,” Wilcox said.

Rico Munn, the superintendent of Aurora Public Schools, had recommended Lyn Knoll for turnaround after the school fell to the state’s lowest quality rating last year. Enrollment at the school has also dropped. But the Aurora school board voted instead to wait another year to see if the school itself can make improvements.

Munn Thursday suggested that the board may still make part of that decision contingent on approval of the school’s action plan.

The union-led joint steering committee that wrote the recommendations offered to monitor and guide the school during the 2018-19 school year as it tries to improve, but it’s a role the group has never taken on before. Part of that role has already started with committee members visiting the school for observations.

“The purpose of the joint steering committee is to be a place the schools can go to and ask for guidance,” Wilcox said. “This is where it’s doing well.”

Lyn Knoll is one of three district-run schools in Aurora that have pilot status, which was created about 10 years ago when the district worked with its teachers union to create a path for schools to earn autonomy.

This was before Colorado passed the law that allows schools to seek innovation status, which is a state process that grants schools waivers from some state, district, and union rules as a way to try new ideas.

“At the time that pilot schools came in, our district was very lockstep,” Wilcox said. “What was done at one school was done at the other. That was the framework.”

Schools that wanted to try something different or unique could apply to the district for pilot status if they had a plan with school and community support. Each pilot school also had to create a school governing board that could include teachers and community members that would help the school make decisions.

At Lyn Knoll, one of the popular innovations involved letting students have physical education every day of the week, something not common in many schools.

Another of the district’s pilot schools, William Smith High School, uses its status to lead a school unlike any other in the district, with a project-based learning model where students learn standards from different subjects through real-life scenarios and projects.

The Aurora district, like many districts around the country, now has created more ways beyond pilot status for principals to make specific changes at their school.

In Aurora, Munn said the current structure of the district, which now has “learning communities,” is meant to be responsive to the differences between groups of schools.

“We’re really trying to strongly connect different parts of the district and be flexible and there are different ways of doing that,” Munn said.

Schools can come to the district and request permission to use a different curriculum, for instance, or to change their school calendar so students can be released early on certain days for teacher planning time. There’s also a district application process so that schools that need specific help or resources from the district can request them. And more recently, schools that want several, structured, waivers are more likely to apply for the state’s innovation status, which provides “a stronger framework,” Munn said.

The district said current pilot school principals could not speak about their school model for this story.

Lyn Knoll currently has no principal for next year. Officials at Thursday’s board meeting suggested waiting until a new principal is identified or hired so that person could work with the school’s governing board on a plan for change. It was unclear how soon that might happen, although finalists are being scheduled for interviews next week.

Clarification: The story has been updated to reflect that the need for a principal at Lyn Knoll is for next year.

Give and take

Aurora district may start sharing local dollars with charters a year early, in exchange for higher fees

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at the AXL Academy charter school in Aurora work on math problems in 2015.

The Aurora school district has a plan for how to comply with last year’s law requiring that districts share local funding with their charter schools, and it includes raising the fees that it charges those schools.

The law requires districts that weren’t already sharing the funds from voter-approved tax increases to do so.

Rico Munn, Aurora’s superintendent, argued against the move last year, but the law ultimately passed. It allows school district’s time to plan and doesn’t go into effect until the fall of 2019.

District leaders told the school board during a meeting last week there was no reason to wait.

“Our budget decisions don’t get easier in future years, and it’s kind of our position that it’s easier to rip the bandaid off now than it is to wait one more year for something that we know is coming,” Brett Johnson, the district’s chief financial officer, told the board.

District staff told the school board that Aurora Public Schools initially didn’t have many charter schools, and so provided many services at no charge. But now that more charters have opened in the district and as more are expected to come, a recent evaluation has helped the district come up with updated fees.

Currently, charter schools in Aurora pay a flat fee of $12,000, plus additional fees that add up to roughly $750 per student. The district is proposing to do away with the flat fee and add almost $200 per student in additional fees, bringing the total to $949. Some schools will save money and others will pay more, depending on how many students they have.

The increased fees mean the district will recoup some of the money they would otherwise have to hand over to charter schools, but for charter schools, the deal still means more funding.

Aurora currently gives charter schools about $3.05 million a year. Under the new law, the district expects its charter school allocation would be $6.54 million. The net increase in what the district spends on charter schools, after the increased fees, would be $2.5 million.

Board members supported the plan, questioning why the district had been “undercharging” charter schools in the first place.

“Certain services were done in-kind just because we had a smaller number of schools,” said Mackenzie Stauffer, the district’s charter school coordinator.

The services the district provides to charter schools can include administering or having a monitor for assessments, or helping schools evaluate a student who might be gifted.

The Aurora district created an office of autonomous schools in 2016. The office includes one staff member who just works with charter schools and whose position is funded by the required fees charged to all Aurora charter schools.

That department has created a new review process for charter school applications and a new process for charter school renewals, among other work.

“What we’re trying to do is make sure that the fee schedule moving forward can support the growth of charter schools, which we already know is happening,” Stauffer said.

Dan Schaller, director of governmental affairs for the Colorado League of Charter Schools, said he was not aware of other districts looking at similar deals and questioned the pairing of both sharing and charging charters money.

“My question would be why now?” Schaller said. “Given the whole debate and intent about equalizing funding, why would they be trying to do anything to circumvent it?”

Kathryn Mullins, the founder and executive director of Vega Collegiate Academy, said she learned about the proposal earlier this month at a meeting with charter school leaders, and said most were in support.

“For us personally, it makes sense,” Mullins said.