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.

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: