AURORA — For Josiah Lopez, the 2014-15 school year was a waste of time.

The Aurora Central High School sophomore said he learned nothing new. Everything was “just repeat” from what he learned at a Denver charter school the year before.

“They don’t care about their education,” he said of his peers at the academically struggling high school in this suburb east of Denver.

“They don’t push us,” he said of his teachers.

“I hope they do make changes,” he said on one of the last days of school, as he sat on a park bench across the street from his school.

Specifically, Lopez said he wants more advanced classes, like an International Baccalaureate program, that can prepare him for college.

Oh, and healthier food in the cafeteria.

Lopez isn’t the only one with big ideas about how to improve Aurora Central High School, one of the 169 schools labeled as failing by the state. The city’s superintendent has a plan, too.

For five years, Aurora Central has been labeled as failing by the Colorado Department of Education, because most students perform below grade level on standardized tests, and the school’s composite ACT score and graduation rate are far below state averages. It is the largest high school on Colorado’s “accountability clock.” And its time has run out.

With the school facing state sanctions, Aurora Public School superintendent Rico Munn pitched a plan earlier this year to his school board to free the school of certain district and state policies. That freedom, he said, would help accelerate student learning.

"We’ve done everything. We’ll try anything. But I doubt there is anything that can be done until the root causes (poverty) are dealt with. And that’s not in our control."

The plan, dubbed ACTION Zones, would also include nearby elementary and middle schools with similar academic struggles and student demographics. Most of those students end up at Aurora Central.

If the plan goes into effect (at the earliest for the 2016-17 school year) and proves successful at schools in the original Aurora neighborhood, more such zones could be developed.

But making Aurora Central a better place for students to learn is going to be difficult, not just because modern day school improvement is far from a replicable science, but because it’s not clear that the community — from the school board to the students — is behind the superintendent’s vision.

Some believe Aurora Central is fine as is. Others don’t believe the district has moved fast enough. Some believe nothing can be done to drastically improve the school given the students it serves. Others say the state, not the school, needs to change its definition of what success is.

Munn’s plan, as well as other possible options for Aurora Central, will be the focus of a final town hall meeting at 10 a.m. Saturday at the school.

And on Tuesday, Munn will ask the city’s school board to take a first step toward approving his comprehensive plan for Aurora Central and five other schools.

To better understand Aurora Central, you have to better understand the unique demographics of its student population.

The school, sandwiched between one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods and the booming Fitzsimons medical campus, serves slightly more than 2,100 students. Most qualify for government subsidized lunches, and are Latino, black, and/or a refugee. Four out of every 10 Aurora Central students are English language learners. And nearly 15 percent have special education needs.

“It’s just so unique,” said school board member Mary Lewis. “And we need to celebrate that.”

Student leaders say the school’s diversity allows them to find themselves and their passions in a safe place.

“There’s space to be an individual here,” said Yamel Ramirez, a senior.

Aurora Central High students discuss the school's future in a leadership class.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Aurora Central High students discuss the school’s future in a leadership class.

While diversity and individuality might be celebrated by those inside Aurora Central, students know many adults outside those four walls judge the school by their test scores alone.

And those scores are nothing to brag about.

In 2013, only 3 percent of black 10th graders were proficient or above in math, according to the state’s tests. Fewer than 13 percent of Hispanic 10th graders met the mark. Not even a third of the school’s white 10th graders were performing at grade level in math in the same year.

“This staff works extremely hard. But we have sophomores who are working two jobs to support their family,” said Sharon Summers, an English teacher. “We’ve done everything. We’ll try anything. But I doubt there is anything that can be done until the root causes (poverty) are dealt with. And that’s not in our control. Poverty is not an excuse — it’s a reality.”

If trends hold, about 40 percent of sophomores who took the state’s standardized tests in 2013 graduated on time earlier this month. While Aurora Central’s graduation rate has improved, it has failed to break 50 percent since 2008.

When students hear these numbers they say two things. First, they’re more than a test score. Second, they don’t try on tests.

“People put more effort into their class than those tests,” said Keshon White, a sophomore.

White, like many other students interviewed by Chalkbeat, also said it’s the students’ fault — not the teachers’ or administrators’ — that test scores aren’t higher.

“We get people ditching. But I’m taking advantage of my education,” White said, standing in the middle of the park across the street from Aurora Central. There were about two dozen students other students there during the middle of the school day.

White said he had had been excused from class by a family member.

Under state law, Aurora Central must either close, be handed over to an independent school management organization, be converted to a charter school, or seek innovation status from the State Board of Education. But exactly when that change will occur is now up in the air.

Until recent legislation, one of those changes had to take effect by the 2016-17 school year. However, House Bill 15-1323 put a temporary freeze on any accountability decisions being made based on standardized exams. So Aurora Central and schools like it have a little more breathing room before the state imposes its sanctions.

“It’s the gift of time,” said Peter Sherman, the state’s school improvement director. “But everyone is still on the clock. Schools have time, but they should use it wisely.”

Sherman said current trends in drastic school overhauls of the type the state expects to happen at Aurora Central include what’s called a “year zero.” That’s when school leaders have a full school year to pick a school model, hire staff, develop a budget, and design curriculum.

Superintendent Munn’s plan built in a year to engage the community and draft an innovation plan for the school, which under state law must be approved by a majority of the school’s teachers, parents, school board, and the state.

"We seem to have a flavor of the week. First they want you to put a learning objective on the board. Then they don’t. Central needs consistency."

An extra year for Aurora Central could mean more time to engage the community and formulate a plan. There’s also nothing stopping the district from moving forward with Munn’s timeline, or some variation of it.

Munn has repeatedly said his plan is designed to be what’s best for the students of Aurora Central and that it only meets state law by happenstance.

“Regardless of the new timeline, we are committed to improving student achievement,” Munn said Friday. “We plan to continue pursuing opportunities including ACTION zones to accelerate learning for every Aurora Public Schools student.”

Munn will need all the time he has to rally the school’s community behind his vision, and to dispel rumors.

Many students and even some teachers who spoke to Chalkbeat during the three months since Munn’s proposal went public have said they believe the school will either be closed or turned over to a charter school.

Teachers fear they’ll lose their jobs. Student fear the imposition of school uniforms and a closed campus.

Munn and the school board have said the school will not close. The district has nowhere else to send students. Unlike other academically struggling school districts across the country, Aurora Public Schools, is growing, not shrinking.

And because keeping Aurora Central intact as one comprehensive high school, instead of breaking it up the into smaller programs (as Denver Public Schools and other urban school districts have done) is a priority, charter schools are not likely to be interested to taking over the school.

Aurora Central science teacher Tony Bullock prepped his students for an exam earlier this spring.
Aurora Central science teacher Tony Bullock prepped his students for an exam earlier this spring.

Aurora Central principal Mark Roberts said this is not the first time innovation status, the technical term for what Munn wants to do at Aurora Central, has been considered. In fact, he said, he was hired in 2013 to turn the school in that direction. But because he joined the school at the same time the Aurora school board hired Munn, those plans were put on hold.

Roberts has been missing from most board room discussions about Aurora Central. He said he’s been active in discussing the future of the school with district leaders in other settings. But Roberts said he wanted his teachers to be able to attend board meetings and share their opinions during public comment without having to worry about what he might hear.

“I’m involved as much as I’m asked to participate,” he said. “When [the board] starts making decisions, I’ll be attending more.”

He said the school would benefit from having more freedom to decide how to spend its budget, especially around staffing, professional development, and curriculum.

“We’ve seen results when the district’s curriculum has been supplemented,” he said.

But some teachers are concerned that innovation status could lead to more confusion and more half-initiatives.

The school already has some flexibility in how it has spent a multi-year $1 million grant to boost student achievement. And that has led to more professional development that hasn’t always been helpful, said science teacher Tony Bullock.

“We seem to have a flavor of the week,” Bullock said. “First they want you to put a learning objective on the board. Then they don’t. Central needs consistency.”

Above all else, teachers say they just want to know how Munn’s proposal will get different — and better — results.

A 2014 study of innovation schools in Denver, the school district with more such schools than any other state, found that while teacher morale was higher, student results were mixed at best. Innovation schools often did no better than schools managed more closely by the school district.

Aurora Central parents may be the most eager for change.

“I know my child will be OK, but I’m worried about the other children,” said Karen Porter. Her son is a junior and she serves on the district’s accountability committee. “The school is hostile. There’s too many different incidents. There’s always something.”

As of April, students have been referred to the office 143 times and suspended 105 times. Three have been expelled so far this school year. That puts Aurora Central on par with the district’s other high schools.

But those numbers mark a sharp decrease from the 2013-2014 school year when the school clocked more than 2,000 office referrals, 300 suspensions, and 21 expulsions. No other Aurora high school came close to those numbers that year.

“The data should have told us years ago there was a problem,” Porter said.

Parent Richard Rimpson agrees that whatever happens at Aurora Central, a more peaceful environment would benefit students.

“If you can’t control the classroom, you can’t teach,” he said.

However, he said, classroom management needs to be equitable and fair.

Both say the school needs more parent involvement — during the good times and bad — and the students and staff have to work together.

“We can be the flagship school of Aurora,” Rimpson said. “We need to believe that the students are capable, their families are capable.”

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PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia