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.
“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.”
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.”