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.”

terms of the deal

Aurora school board approves contract for district’s first DSST campus

Students at a campus of DSST, a charter network that is a big piece of Denver's "portfolio" approach to school management. (Denver Post file)

The Aurora school board on Tuesday night — in its last vote before new board members are sworn in — approved a contract with DSST Public Schools for the charter network’s first school outside of Denver.

The contract spells out enrollment and performance expectations, and upon request from Aurora school board members, ensures DSST will have representation from an Aurora resident on their own network governing board.

In June, the board approved DSST’s application to open four schools — two middle and two high schools — starting with one of each in the fall of 2019. The contract approved Tuesday is only for the first campus of a middle and high school.

During public comment, teachers, some parents and union leaders spoke to the board, as they have in past meetings, speaking against the DSST contract.

Among the speakers Tuesday was Debbie Gerkin, one of the newly elected school board members. Gerkin cited concerns with the plan to allow DSST to hire teachers who don’t yet have certifications, echoing a common criticism of charter schools.

“I appreciate there’s been so much hard work put into the DSST contact,” Gerkin said. “I ask that we continue to think about this.”

Board member Cathy Wildman asked the board if they would consider delaying the vote until the new board members are seated at the end of the month. A majority of current board members said they would not support a delay, noting they’ve spent more than a year working on learning about the DSST application and contract.

The school board first discussed the contract details at a meeting in October. At that time, board members asked district staff to go back to discussions with DSST to suggest that they commit to having someone from Aurora on their board of directors.

School board members asked questions about the details of the enrollment process such as whether there would be a preference for siblings, how student vacancies would be filled and whether the guidelines would really make the school demographics integrated.

According to the contract, DSST will give students in the surrounding neighborhoods, those served by elementary schools Rocky Mountain Prep, Paris, Crawford and Montview, first preference for half of the school’s open seats.

The remaining half will first go to any other Aurora students, but if seats are still available after that, students outside the district may enroll.

Enrollment numbers discussed in a separate presentation at the October board meeting show that the target area for the school, in northwest Aurora, is also the area with the largest declining enrollment. Schools in those neighborhoods have been near capacity, but not overcrowded like other schools in the district.

DSST will have a cap of enrolling no more than 450 students. An enrollment cap for charter schools in Aurora is standard, said Lamont Browne, the director of autonomous schools. In the first year, since the school will start with just sixth graders, the school anticipates enrolling 150 students. By April 1, DSST leaders must show the district that they’ve already enrolled at least 75 of those students.

A large section of the DSST contract spells out the district and school’s responsibilities in serving any students with special needs that may want to enroll at DSST.

The contract also includes a section that gives the district a right to close the school or deny a charter renewal if DSST earns a priority improvement rating from the state and doesn’t improve it after one year.

Recent contracts the Aurora school board approved for other charter schools also have requirements for performance, but not as stringent. The contract for The Academy of Advanced Learning, for instance, requires that school to improve after one year of earning a turnaround rating from the state. The turnaround rating is the lowest a school can get.

DSST has similar performance requirements in its contracts with Denver Public Schools allowing for a nonrenewal of a contract if a school has low ratings, but none of the Denver DSST schools have dropped to the lowest two categories of ratings. DSST schools, in fact, consistently are some of the state’s highest performing on state tests.

What the contract still doesn’t detail is a possible new name for Aurora’s DSST schools (the school originally was called the Denver School of Science and Technology) or how the district and the charter will split the cost of the building.

When Superintendent Rico Munn invited DSST to apply to open a school in Aurora, he offered to pay for half the cost of a new building for the charter school.

The bond voters approved in 2016 included money to pay for a new building for the charter school. The contract reiterates earlier commitments that both the district and the charter network must identify the money for a building by March 30.

A contract for the second 6-12 campus would be negotiated at a later time if the charter school meets performance requirements to move forward with opening the third and fourth schools.

Looking ahead

Union-backed candidates prevail in Aurora — and all sides downplay prospect of big immediate change

Union President Bruce Wilcox, far left, addressing four school board candidates: Debbie Gerkin, Kevin Cox, Kyla Armstrong-Romero and Marques Ivey, as they awaited election results Tuesday. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

One day after school board candidates backed by the teachers union swept into power in Aurora, the district superintendent and leaders of charter schools he recruited downplayed potential conflicts and committed to working with the new members.

Union leaders made similar comments Wednesday, expressing optimism that the newly elected members and Superintendent Rico Munn will forge a fruitful relationship.

The four candidates who will make up a majority on the seven-member school board have been critical of charter schools in interviews with Chalkbeat and candidate questionnaires. But in public comments, including during campaign forums, several of the candidates expressed openness to working with some charter schools depending on the circumstances.

That has left some uncertainty about what the election might mean for charter schools, which are a key piece of Munn’s recent reform efforts in Aurora, and the district’s strategies overall.

The newly elected school board members emphasized Tuesday they want to work with the existing leadership and aren’t planning major changes immediately.

Munn told Chalkbeat on Wednesday he needs to hear from the new board before contemplating any shifts to district priorities.

“In our reform strategy we’ve laid out at least nine different strategies that we’ve been implementing across different schools,” Munn said. “Our current board, and I’m sure our new board, may not like every single one of those. But that’s just an ongoing conversation we have to have.”

Put on notice by state education officials in 2010 for low performance, Aurora Public Schools had little choice but to embark on reforms to better serve its diverse population, which has large numbers of black and Latino students, and young refugees fleeing strife around the world.

Munn, hired in 2013, has overseen an approach the district calls “disruptive innovation.” Along with recruiting high-performing charters to the district, Aurora has adopted a new system for hiring meant to strengthen its principal corps, given schools more control over budgets and created an “innovation zone” providing schools within it greater freedom to experiment.

The district’s efforts have attracted interest from private foundations, education reform groups — and a gradually greater investment of attention and money in school board races, a trend that’s nearly a decade old in neighboring Denver.

Two years ago, reform groups from the left and right and a more engaged teachers union sought to influence the Aurora election. The result was split — two incumbents prevailed, and one of two conservative-backed reform candidates won.

Most of this year’s investment from the reform side came from an independent expenditure committee tied to Democrats For Education Reform. The reform community’s two preferred candidates —Miguel In Suk Lovato and Gail Pough — finished fifth and sixth in the race for the four seats. As of the last big campaign finance report deadline, a committee bankrolled by the teachers union had spent even more to help the union-endorsed slate, billed “Aurora’s A-Team.”

Union leadership and the board candidates on the winning slate have expressed concerns about Aurora Public Schools’ decision to close a struggling school and replace it with a charter school, Rocky Mountain Prep. Also coming in for their criticism: Munn’s invitation to DSST, a high performing charter network, to open in Aurora, and his offer to pay for half the cost of a new building.

The DSST deal is expected to be done after the current board votes on the final contract on Nov. 14 — their last meeting before the new board is sworn in.

Bill Kurtz, the CEO of DSST, said Wednesday the charter school network doesn’t have any concerns about working with board members elected as a union-backed slate.

“We’re excited to meet the new school board in Aurora, and excited about our work in Aurora,” Kurtz said. “Like any school board, we will work hard to start to build a strong relationship with the new board to collaborate so we can best serve students in Aurora … Our view of working with the school board in Aurora is no different today than it was yesterday.”

James Cryan, CEO of Rocky Mountain Prep, voiced a similar sentiment.

“I don’t have any concerns at this point,” Cryan said. “We’re proud to be a part of that community.”

Others who support some of Munn’s strategies are urging patience. Tyler Sandberg, a co-founder and senior policy adviser at Ready Colorado, a conservative education reform nonprofit that also invested in the race, said education reform policy discussions are in the early stages in Aurora.

“Charters are only just beginning to demonstrate to the community the quality they can bring,” Sandberg said. “I’m hopeful that the new board members are going to go to the community and realize how empowering some of these charter schools have been for these students. I’m hopeful schools like Rocky Mountain Prep and DSST are going to be able to make a pretty good impression.”

Sandberg also said that reform groups were at a disadvantage against unions which have “built in ground game and funding structure.”

The state teachers union, Colorado Education Association, invested heavily in Aurora after new leadership at the local level began to highlight the concerns of educators including the charter conversion and the DSST invitation, union officials say.

“The community didn’t want to become Denver East,” said Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, a reference to the charter-friendly district next door. “They want to create their own vision of their quality public schools and they want a healthy relationship with the school district, board of education and community.”

Munn has repeatedly expressed a similar message — that Aurora’s school improvement strategies are not a carbon copy of Denver’s and that they are tailored to Aurora’s needs.

Aurora showed enough improvement to pull itself off the state’s watch list for persistent low performance, sparing itself from a state-sanctioned improvement plan. Outside groups, however, including education reform-friendly groups, have complained that the district isn’t doing nearly enough, citing disturbingly low academic proficiency and other troubling statistics.

Although union members and supporters had plenty to celebrate after Tuesday’s election, not all of organizers’ goals were accomplished. Vicky McRoberts, a former union leader who helped work on the Aurora campaign for the teachers union, said Tuesday night that ambitious goals to engage teachers in the campaign fell short.

But she said volunteers who did help campaign were successful in connecting with voters on issues polls showed they cared about — such as increasing career and technical opportunities for students.

Bruce Wilcox, president of the Aurora teacher’s union, said Wednesday that teachers from outside Aurora helped the campaign, as well.

“We also had more teachers than in the past from our own district,” Wilcox said. “A lot of our teachers did more that one event. I think teachers here in the district recognized that this was an important election.”

Wilcox said the union can’t control what the slate of new board members will do, but said teachers and the union just wanted more collaboration with the district, and to feel that their opinion will be heard.

“I don’t anticipate this board to make any sweeping changes,” Wilcox said. “I’m hoping this board can establish a relationship with Mr. Munn and move forward. We’re at a great crossroads. Our long range plans have come to an end. What better way to start that work moving forward.”