New Beginnings

At Aurora’s newest school, students taught life skills to become better learners and writers

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Principal Carrie Clark, left, and Superintendent Rico Munn greet students at the Edna and John W. Mosley P-8 school Monday, the first day of school for most students at the new school.

AURORA — Emmanuel Zamudio is very much a 9-year-old boy. He knows what he likes — math, science and explosions. He also knows what he’d rather avoid — writing.

“I don’t know how to spell a lot of words, like, that are super hard,” he said, taking a break from riding his bike through his mobile home park along Colfax Avenue. “Like ‘example.’ I don’t know how to spell that.”

The fourth-grader is among the first class of students at a new Aurora Public School embarking on a bold experiment to link life skills such as perseverance and coping to learning, a strategy viewed as essential for students more likely to bounce from school to school.

As part of its first year, the Edna and John W. Mosley P-8 school is applying those principles to tackling one of public education’s thorniest topics: how to better teach writing.

If teachers at Mosley succeed, they’ll not only teach Emmanuel how to overcome his spelling paralysis and become a proficient writer, they’ll provide a model for other academically struggling schools in Aurora that must boost student scores on state tests or face sanctions.

A new school, a new model
In the fall of 2013, two-thirds of Aurora’s elementary and middle schools were at 90 percent or more capacity. With enrollment projected to climb by 2 percent annually the next four years, the district had to act.

So Aurora Public Schools officials asked their board to build a new school using a loan from the private sector.

The board agreed to finance $30 million for the school. At capacity, it will serve up to 1,000 students and take enrollment pressures off up to 10 schools.

Mosley, which is adjacent to Buckley Air Force Base, serves no traditional neighborhood. Nearly 80 percent of students who attend Mosley come from one of about a dozen apartment complexes or mobile home communities that surround the school — including Emmanuel’s.

The school’s lack of defined neighborhood boundaries reflects reality in Aurora, Superintendent Rico Munn said.

Emmanuel Zamudio, 9, rides his bike in his mobile home community in August before school starts.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Emmanuel Zamudio, 9, rides his bike in his mobile home community in August before school starts.

“We have a lot of mobility,” he said. “It’s a reality of housing.”

Nearly three out of every 10 Aurora students will change schools each year, according to state data. This fact, in part, inspired Mosley’s unique model: Along with reading, writing and arithmetic, students would be taught academic resilience.

Principal Carrie Clark and her team define it like this: The process of students using their own strengths and support systems at school and home to persevere through difficult times and view challenges as opportunities for growth and empowerment.

In other words, students will learn how not to give up when the learning gets tough and how to strive to be their best.

In recent years, more school systems like Aurora that serve mostly students of color from low-income homes have been looking to “noncognitive” skills, like “grit,” to improve classrooms.

“Kids do have innate skills for overcoming situations,” said Dorinda J. Carter Andrews, an associate professor in the Department of Teacher Education at Michigan State University. “Those are human traits. But when it comes to schooling, some kids based on their environment might not have the skill set to persevere in the context of those environmental conditions.”

Students at Mosley will spend 30 minutes a day during a morning meeting focused on building resiliency. But it won’t stop there. Throughout the day, teachers will ask students to put those skills to work while tackling tough math problems or reading a book with unfamiliar words.

“Academic resilience is something they can take with them,” Clark said. “It’s not something so specific only to Aurora or only to Mosley. We’re teaching them skills that they can apply in other areas. … We want to teach them something they can use in their future and not so specific to where that school is located. And I think the strategy of coping you can use anywhere you are.”

But Carter Andrews, echoing a backlash against “grit,” said asking students just to persevere isn’t enough. They need support systems before, during and after school.

“What we see nationally, where schools are the most effective, is everyone is taking part and helping those young people to learn and maintain skills,” Carter Andrews said.

She recommended that Mosley develop or partner with after-school programs with similar aims.

So far the school has teamed up with just one after-school program: Girls on the Run, a nonprofit that blends learning life skills with physical activities. More partnerships are expected, a district spokeswoman said.

Still, Mosley teachers and staff are at the ready and embracing Clark’s vision.

“There are a lot of schools in APS that don’t have a vision and don’t know what they’re working for,” said Aretha Savaloja, Mosley’s dean.

A focus on writing
Writing well is difficult. And most Aurora Public Schools students can’t do it.

Two-thirds of Aurora third-graders write below grade level, according to results from 2014 TCAP tests. That was true for sixth- and eighth-graders as well.

By comparison, about half of the state’s students are at or above grade-level in writing.

“It takes incredible attention, focus and resources,” said Steve Graham, a professor at Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. “… Writing is not a fun task for some people.”

Sixth grade teachers Linda Mallory and Chris Butler worked together on creating common writing lessons during a summer training for Mosley teachers.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Sixth grade teachers Linda Mallory and Chris Butler worked together on creating common writing lessons during a summer training for Mosley teachers.

In national surveys, teachers report not being confident in their own writing skills and knowledge to teach writing. Teachers also report they don’t have enough time to teach writing or allow students to practice.

On average, Graham said, teachers will spend about 15 minutes a day teaching a writing lesson and students will spend 20 minutes practicing.

To turn the tide on these national trends, Mosley students in kindergarten through sixth grade will have a two-and-a-half hour literacy block to focus on reading and writing. Seventh and eighth graders will have about an hour each day.

Teachers also will work in teams throughout the year to identify proficient writing and develop shared lesson plans.

But reality is daunting: More than 800 students — at least a third of whom are learning English as a second language and 10 percent of whom have some sort of learning disability — enter Mosley at different writing levels and with different skill sets.

“How do you support students where they’re at and connect them to the rest of the lesson?” said sixth-grade teacher Chris Butler. “That’s really hard.”

To differentiate lessons, Clark, Mosley’s principal, is asking her teachers to be familiar with the gamut of content standards in order to identify where students are and how to catch them up. But teachers, Clark said, are not to lower expectations.

There’s good reason, according to research, not to lower the bar for students with the greatest obstacles to overcome, said Carol Booth Olson, an associate professor at the University of California Irvine. She’s researched English language learners since 1982.

English language learners “are capable of making really dramatic progress and people shouldn’t dumb down the curriculum for them,” Booth Olson said. “They should be given more strategies and encouragement. But they won’t get better if they don’t practice.”

As for Emmanuel, the 9-year-old who struggles with spelling, he’s ready for the challenge.

“The new school might push more people to get focused on learning,” he said. “They’ll challenge us to get better.”


Aurora’s superintendent will get a contract extension

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

The Aurora school board is offering superintendent Rico Munn a contract extension.

Marques Ivey, the school board president, made the announcement during Tuesday’s regular board meeting.

“The board of education believes we are headed in the right direction,” Ivey said. Munn can keep the district going in the right direction, he added.

The contract extension has not been approved yet. Munn said Tuesday night that it had been sent to his lawyer, but he had not had time to review it.

Munn took the leadership position in Aurora Public Schools in 2013. His current contract is set to expire at the end of June.

Munn indicated he intends to sign the new contract after he has time to review it. If he does so, district leaders expect the contract to be on the agenda of the board’s next meeting, April 3, for a first review, and then for a vote at the following meeting.

Details about the new offer, including the length of the extension or any salary increases, have not been made public.

Four of the seven members currently on the board were elected in November as part of a union-supported slate. Many voiced disapproval of some of the superintendent’s reform strategies such as his invitation to charter school network DSST to open in Aurora.

In their first major vote as a new board, the board also voted against the superintendent’s recommendation for the turnaround of an elementary school, signaling a disagreement with the district’s turnaround strategies.

But while several Aurora schools remain low performing, last year the district earned a high enough rating from the state to avoid a path toward state action.


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.