Late start

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

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Kennon Baldwin, a Hinkley High School senior, works on an online course during night school.

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.”



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.

Give and take

Aurora district may start sharing local dollars with charters a year early, in exchange for higher fees

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at the AXL Academy charter school in Aurora work on math problems in 2015.

The Aurora school district has a plan for how to comply with last year’s law requiring that districts share local funding with their charter schools, and it includes raising the fees that it charges those schools.

The law requires districts that weren’t already sharing the funds from voter-approved tax increases to do so.

Rico Munn, Aurora’s superintendent, argued against the move last year, but the law ultimately passed. It allows school district’s time to plan and doesn’t go into effect until the fall of 2019.

District leaders told the school board during a meeting last week there was no reason to wait.

“Our budget decisions don’t get easier in future years, and it’s kind of our position that it’s easier to rip the bandaid off now than it is to wait one more year for something that we know is coming,” Brett Johnson, the district’s chief financial officer, told the board.

District staff told the school board that Aurora Public Schools initially didn’t have many charter schools, and so provided many services at no charge. But now that more charters have opened in the district and as more are expected to come, a recent evaluation has helped the district come up with updated fees.

Currently, charter schools in Aurora pay a flat fee of $12,000, plus additional fees that add up to roughly $750 per student. The district is proposing to do away with the flat fee and add almost $200 per student in additional fees, bringing the total to $949. Some schools will save money and others will pay more, depending on how many students they have.

The increased fees mean the district will recoup some of the money they would otherwise have to hand over to charter schools, but for charter schools, the deal still means more funding.

Aurora currently gives charter schools about $3.05 million a year. Under the new law, the district expects its charter school allocation would be $6.54 million. The net increase in what the district spends on charter schools, after the increased fees, would be $2.5 million.

Board members supported the plan, questioning why the district had been “undercharging” charter schools in the first place.

“Certain services were done in-kind just because we had a smaller number of schools,” said Mackenzie Stauffer, the district’s charter school coordinator.

The services the district provides to charter schools can include administering or having a monitor for assessments, or helping schools evaluate a student who might be gifted.

The Aurora district created an office of autonomous schools in 2016. The office includes one staff member who just works with charter schools and whose position is funded by the required fees charged to all Aurora charter schools.

That department has created a new review process for charter school applications and a new process for charter school renewals, among other work.

“What we’re trying to do is make sure that the fee schedule moving forward can support the growth of charter schools, which we already know is happening,” Stauffer said.

Dan Schaller, director of governmental affairs for the Colorado League of Charter Schools, said he was not aware of other districts looking at similar deals and questioned the pairing of both sharing and charging charters money.

“My question would be why now?” Schaller said. “Given the whole debate and intent about equalizing funding, why would they be trying to do anything to circumvent it?”

Kathryn Mullins, the founder and executive director of Vega Collegiate Academy, said she learned about the proposal earlier this month at a meeting with charter school leaders, and said most were in support.

“For us personally, it makes sense,” Mullins said.