New community schools law makes a splash with Aurora Public Schools teachers

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AURORA | Local teacher union advocates hope the Aurora Public Schools district will take advantage of a new law allow allowing struggling schools to become not just learning centers but also food banks, mental health clinics, adult language classrooms and laundromats, with mindfulness and meditation built into school curriculum.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis at the Colorado State Capitol.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

Governor Jared Polis signed Senate Bill 102 last week, a Democrat-sponsored bill that sets up guidelines for low-performing schools seeking to become so-called community schools partnering with groups offering a bevy of social services in response to community needs.

Community school boosters say the type of school is distinct because they would serve all of students’ needs, including academic success but also emotional, nutritional and physical health.

The bill comes at a time when community schools are beginning to dot the Front Range from Pueblo to Jefferson County, and two community charter schools are slated to open in APS next fall. Local educators say APS has an opportune moment to create their own.

The law specifically allows schools to apply for community school status as a type of innovation school — a model APS has taken advantage of to give struggling schools more freedom from state and local education guidelines.

Plus, the law enables schools to become community hubs with the backing of the state Board of Education as a way to turn around low test scores. A school would apply to the APS school board for the official community school status, and the board would then apply to the state Board of Education.

Aurora Public Schools Superintndent Rico Munn.
Portrait by Philip B. Poston/The Sentinel

APS spokesperson Corey Christiansen said the district is not planning to create a full-fledged community school under the new law.

But the idea of community schools is a priority for state and local union educators who say the schools would be a way to address what they claim are district shortcomings.

In this type of school, a full-time community liaison would spearhead a needs assessment of at least 75 percent of school students, staff and parents. Then, the school would establish partnerships with social services groups to meet those needs. For example, if the school was situated in a violent and impoverished neighborhood, staff might decide to keep the school open for extended hours to serve as a safe space; bring in mental health specialists, therapists and counselors to work with students and local social workers; and stock food pantries and provide public laundry machines.

It’s a philosophy rooted in a popular belief that students overburdened with issues outside of school — such as poverty, instability and trauma — will struggle in class.

“It makes the school a community hub instead of just the place that students go to for eight hours a day,” said Bryan Lindstrom, a social studies teacher at Hinkley High school and vice president of the Aurora Education Association teacher union.

The National Education Association cites research indicating better graduation rates and lower levels of behavioral remediation at some of the approximately 5,000 community schools in the country.

One such community school is Jefferson Jr./Sr. High School, which is nearing the end of its first full year implementing the community schools model. The school was the inspiration for SB 102, according to sponsor State Rep. Brianna Titone, who represents part of Jefferson County.

The school is serving about 660 students this year — more than 90 percent of which were eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, a marker of poverty. The school recently earned its way off the state’s accountability clock after improving stagnant academic indicators, and with the new law, the school could apply for innovation status and continue as a community school if scores slip once again.

But site coordinator Rhiannon Wenning is optimistic that the model is helping. She said staff surveyed or personally engaged with about 40 percent of the school community as of last semester to learn their needs. So far, Wenning has helped institute after-school programming with federal funding, student educational pathways to plan for life after graduation, and made food and clothing available for families along with bus passes and housing resources available for homeless students. The school also partners with legal, health and social services and instituted group meditation and emotional development activities for staff and students.

She said the impacts will take years to fully materialize, but said student attendance is up and that the future looks bright.

“We’re going to get there,” she said.

Wenning said the idea of community schools is catching on, citing similar programs at Malley Drive Elementary in the Adams 12 district and Risley International Academy of Innovation in Pueblo. She also cited a possible community school in Sheridan School District No. 2 and a possible expansion of more like-minded schools in Jefferson County. Two charter schools also plan to operate in APS boundaries next fall: Empower Community High School and Aurora Community School.

APS officials have embraced the concept behind community schools — that under-served students won’t properly learn — and prioritized mental health services for students in particular with a $35 million mill levy override voters approved in November. But the district doesn’t plan to go all the way with the model.

For one, cost is a factor for already budget-stressed school districts. Bringing on teams of outside contractors for social services can be expensive, Wenning conceded.

APS has also incorporated an element of community schools — feedback and surveying — in its Blueprint APS project to pin down the future of a district expected to lose students in coming years.

Aurora Education Association President Bruce Wilcox said community schools are a priority for local union educators, but that the union wouldn’t pursue the ambitious conversions of traditional schools without backing from the district.

He added that, as schools are expected to close in the western part of APS because of population drain, community schools could fill the void.

“If we had to close or consolidate schools, this might be a great place to do that: To say, ‘Yes, we’re closing these schools, but we’re doing much more at this one site,’” he said.

The district has embraced other strategies to turn around struggling schools, such as flexibility for teachers and school calendars, and is planning to bring in private educational management firms at Gateway High School and North Middle School.

Wilcox and Board member Kyla Armstrong-Romero, who voted against one preliminary proposal to bring in a manager earlier this year, said the turnaround strategy is less preferable than others. Wilcox would prefer using the community schools model in general.

Armstrong-Romero said she would keep an open mind if a school approached the school board and asked for an official community school status — but it’s unclear if schools would opt for a transition themselves.