Late start

To help more students graduate on time, this Aurora high school is staying open late

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia

AURORA — As the oldest sibling at home, Nadine Molina looks after her younger brothers and sisters each morning. It’s a responsibility that put the Hinkley High School senior’s diploma at risk.

For the last three years, Molina missed most of her morning classes. Instead of solving equations in algebra class, she was driving her five younger siblings to school and helping her father with his construction business.

“I wouldn’t get to school until after lunch,” said Molina, who fell so far behind that she faced a possible a fifth year of high school. “I felt horrible that I could become a super senior.”

That changed this spring with the opening of Hinkley High’s night school, which puts a new wrinkle on credit recovery efforts by starting the day when most students are headed home, recognizing that work and family demands put teens like Molina at risk of being left behind.

While school officials point to early signs of progress, not all students like the online courses that make up the bulk of instruction, and research is thin on whether credit recovery works.

One of 55 students who attend the program to reover missing high school credits, Molina is now on track to graduate thanks in part to a school day that starts at 2:30 p.m.

The program, which launched Jan. 19, is the first of its kind for Aurora Public Schools and is one school’s effort to boost the district’s dismal graduation rate. At Hinkley High School only six out of every 10 students graduate on time. The state’s average graduation rate is 77 percent.

While Hinkley and many of the district’s other high schools offer credit recovery programs during the day, this is the first time an Aurora high school has created a program outside the regular school day.

Credit recovery programs for high school students are prolific in many of Colorado’s school districts and across the nation. A 2011 National Center for Education Statistics report found 88 percent of school districts across the nation offered a credit recovery program. In Colorado, Denver and Jeffco public schools are among the few school districts that offer night school programs.

Hinkley’s program

Three types of students attend Hinkley’s nightly credit recovery program: Seniors who have not earned enough credits to graduate this spring, dropouts who have returned to Hinkley and juniors who have fallen behind.

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“The students who are here, they don’t have a lot of time,” said Andre Bala, the Hinkley administrator who runs the night school. “If they were to stay in the traditional classroom, they wouldn’t make it.”

One encouraging early for the night program: better attendance. On average, about 87 percent of students show up each afternoon. Only 76 percent of students show up daily to the credit recovery program during regular school hours.

The increase in attendance puts Hinkley’s night school on par with last semester’s average daily attendance across all Aurora high schools.

“They didn’t connect with school,” Bala said. “Now they’re showing up regularly.”

For the first hour of night school, students work on building relationships with their classmates and teachers, preparing college resumes or work applications and reviewing their progress in the class with instructors.

From 3:45 p.m. until 8 p.m. students work through online-based courses. There’s a break for dinner –which students must bring at 5 p.m.

The online lessons include a video lecture, course notes, quizzes and tests. Some courses also require students to write short responses or full essays. On hand to help students are four adults, including two licensed teachers.

“Students are flourishing,” Bala said, referring to the online lessons. “This could be the future of education.”

Are they actually learning?

Not all night school students are thrilled with online learning, however.

Kennon Baldwin, a senior, said he misses classroom discourse. And he believes he isn’t retaining as much information as he would in a regular classroom.

“I hate it because there is no interaction with everyone else,” he said. “To some it’s beneficial. I’m not learning as much. I forget a lot. But I’m passing. And night school is keeping me away from the temptation of ditching.”

Baldwin might not be wrong about learning less.

One of the few studies on credit recovery programs, done by the American Institutes for Research, found that students who took a computer-based credit recovery course in algebra learned slightly less than peers who covered similar material in a teacher-led course.

On average, students who took the algebra course online only covered half the material, said Jessica Heppen, a researcher from the American Institutes of Research who co-led the 2011-2012 study.

“It’s a tough row to hoe,” Heppen said.

Heppen said the Chicago students who took part in the study reported the standardized online course was difficult to understand in part because of the volume of reading and the lack of adult support to fill in knowledge gaps.

“Students who have the highest failure rates are going to be taking online classes unless schools offer some different alternative,” Heppen said, arguing for more research into online-credit recovery and more student-adaptive programs. “Online providers should be pushed to put out more flexible models that are engaging and interactive.”

Hinkley principal Matthew Willis said he believes students who earn a diploma through credit recovery are just as prepared as those who travel a traditional path.

“Everyone needs a different avenue,” he said. “To not offer multiple pathways seems unjust.”

Next school year

Hinkley is using a $50,000 grant from the district to pay for the program. School leaders, who already believe the program is working, are searching for outside grants to keep the program running into the future.

Bala said he hopes to grow the night school program and make more meaningful connections with students. His immediate plans include home visits to students who have already dropped out of Hinkley.

He also hopes Aurora’s other high schools consider a similar effort.

“Our students have needs to be met,” he said. “If you give students multiple chances to be successful, and you have high expectations and high levels of support, they’ll meet those expectations.”


performance based

Aurora superintendent is getting a bonus following the district’s improved state ratings

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

Aurora’s school superintendent will receive a 5 percent bonus amounting to $11,820, in a move the board did not announce.

Instead, the one-time bonus was slipped into a routine document on staff transitions.

Tuesday, the school board voted on the routine document approving all the staff changes, and the superintendent bonus, without discussion.

The document, which usually lists staff transfers, resignations, and new hires, included a brief note at the end that explained the additional compensation by stating it was being provided because of the district’s rise in state ratings.

“Pursuant to the superintendent’s contract, the superintendent is entitled to a one-time bonus equal to 5 percent of his base salary as the result of the Colorado Department of Education raising APS’ district performance framework rating,” the note states.

The superintendent’s contract, which was renewed earlier this year, states the superintendent can receive up to a 10 percent bonus per year for improvements in state ratings. The same bonus offer was in Munn’s previous contract with the district.

The most recent state ratings, which were released in the fall, showed the state had noted improvements in Aurora Public Schools — enough for the district to be off the state’s watchlist for low performance. Aurora would have been close to the five years of low-performance ratings that would have triggered possible state action.

“I am appreciative of the Board’s recognition of APS’ overall improvement,” Superintendent Munn said in a statement Wednesday. “It is important to recognize that this improvement has been thanks to a team effort and as such I am donating the bonus to the APS Foundation and to support various classroom projects throughout APS.”

This is the only bonus that Munn has received in Aurora, according to a district spokesman.

In addition to the bonus, and consistent with his contract and the raises other district employees will receive, Munn will also get a 2.93 percent salary increase on July 1. This will bring his annual salary to $243,317.25.

At the end of the board meeting, Bruce Wilcox, president of the teachers union questioned the way the vote was handled, asking why the compensation changes for teachers and compensation changes for other staff were placed as separate items on the meeting’s agenda, but the bonus was simply included at the bottom of a routine report, without its own notice.

“It is clear that the association will unfortunately have to become a greater, louder voice,” Wilcox said. “It is not where we want to be.”

budget book

Aurora school board approves the budget, but will continue transparency discussions to change the level of detail available

A student works at Tollgate Elementary School in Aurora. (Photo by Nic Garcia, Chalkbeat)

Aurora school board members on Tuesday unanimously approved next school year’s $746.8 million budget after months of heated discussions over whether the district had provided the public enough detail about it.

The budget represents a 4.7 percent drop from the current year, because of declines in enrollment and thus state dollars. It does include money for salary increases, but it was Aurora’s transparency, or lack of it, that has generated the most controversy.

But just because the budget was approved doesn’t mean the transparency discussion has ended.

New board member Kyla Armstrong-Romero — the first to press for more information after district officials said they planned on raising student athletic fees — said Tuesday she will keep asking the district for more detailed budget documents.

“I understand the necessity to approve the budget on time,” Armstrong-Romero said. But, she said, she’s back to the drawing board to see how to go about making more requests.

Brett Johnson, Aurora’s chief financial officer, said releasing more detail would be better, but said his department didn’t have the capacity to change what it provides quickly.

“We want to make a budget book that is more user friendly,” Johnson told the board. But he added, “there would be a lot of upfront costs associated with rebuilding and rethinking the style of this budget.”

As an example, he said, the Cherry Creek district has double the budget staff that Aurora does, including one full-time employee that collects numbers from schools.

After November’s election, Aurora’s new board majority began to insist on more budget detail – in contrast with the previous board, which sought budget overviews.

Aurora Public Schools has had four budget directors in four years, including Johnson who started 15 months ago. The finance department has struggled to maintain consistency.

In recent years, board members had prioritized accesible information that could easily make sense to anyone. Officials pointed to the creation of a two-page budget summary for the first time last year, and the launch last summer of an interactive website that breaks down budget allocations.

Armstrong-Romero said she wanted more detail to understand where next year’s budget was different from the current year’s budget or previous years’ budgets. She asked for comparable line-item documents, and explanations of what made up big buckets of spending.

Specifically, she asked for numbers to understand the tradeoffs of not making certain budget cuts.

Superintendent Rico Munn told the board that he could not ask staff to create multiple proposed budgets just to detail all the various scenarios.

Board members talked about other district’s budgets. Denver Public Schools, for example, launched a new budget book earlier this year that includes a breakdown of where every dollar allocated per student gets spent.

“For me, it’s inconceivable that our community does not merit the same level of transparency,” Armstrong-Romero said.

Munn said that there are differences in communities, but disputed the thought that different information meant less transparency.

“Our community certainly deserves transparency, but that looks different ways in different communities,” Munn said. “It may be fair to say we haven’t struck the right tone or that there’s room to improve, which we’ve already indicated, but clearly we are not trying to hide anything.”

Some board members said that they didn’t need details down to how much was spent on each pencil at each school, but board member Kevin Cox said the conversation doesn’t have to be about one or the other, and suggested both a detailed book, and overview summaries should be available for the public.

Aurora is already searching for software to automate its budget and to skip manual data entry.

Johnson said that currently three people enter 30,000 pieces of data. “We are hoping to automate that with a better system,” he said.

Jonathan Travers, a partner at the Massachusetts-based nonprofit Education Resource Strategies, suggested districts can provide budget detail in many ways. One way is to focus on the strategy behind financial decisions.

He said “hundreds of pages of detail on accounting… is far less helpful than a few pages” on the ways in which the district allocates resources.

Board members also talked earlier this month about doing an audit, or hiring a consultant to help rethink the budget.

Colorado already requires outside audits of school district spending. Those audit reports look at many aspects of finance procedures, and are made public, but they lag because they focus on the actual dollar amounts after they’ve been spent.

Budgets, however, aren’t required to be audited because they are only proposed plan for where to allocate money.

At a budget hearing, one teacher said he supported Armstrong-Romero’s request for more budget information to help the board make decisions, and reminded the four new board members that they ran on a platform of transparency.