Last Monday morning, Principal Gerardo De La Garza fist-bumped a student on his way to visit an English
language arts class.
Inside, about 20 students sat with furrowed brows. Their task: Summarizing an essay arguing that America is obsessed with crime.
Downstairs, in another classroom, students sat at tables they’d made themselves, grouped by their native languages: English, Spanish, and Swahili. That’s not uncommon at Central, a north-Aurora high school that draws from neighborhoods chock-full of immigrant and refugee families.
Walking back to his office through deserted halls, De La Garza encountered a lone, wandering student in an argument with a school staffer. He insisted he walk her back to a classroom. She yelled at him adding in profanity, but the staffer was persistent.
So she begrudgingly left with him, walking back to class.
At Central, De La Garza and an expanding staff are laser-focused on doing the grinding, “hard work” of reforming a 2,000-student school. It’s now in its ninth year of being watched by the state Department of Education for failing to improve low test scores and other poor indicators enough. Central is perhaps the longest-struggling school Aurora has seen in recent years, and the second-lowest rated school in the Aurora Public Schools district this year, according to early state assessments.
Much of the work has focused on the basics: getting students to class, reducing disciplinary issues and building a strong academic team.
Staff say they are working tirelessly to educate a student body that is overwhelmingly non-white and largely living in varying degrees of poverty. Headway has been made, but officials and staff say the hard work will have to continue for years.
“To me, Central is probably the biggest challenge since I’ve been on the board in some ways,” said outgoing school board member Dan Jorgensen, who has served on the APS school board since 2011.
“It’s a microcosm of the U.S. And I think it’s a place where some of our biggest challenges — that we do see nationally — exist, and also some of our greatest strengths: in our kids and what can be done.”
The problem, by the numbers
Inside Central, the student body culture is an amalgam of many cultures.
Over 95 percent of enrolled students identified as non-white during the 2017-2018 school year, the most recent state data available. About 60 percent of the students were learning English as a second language, and about three-quarters of students
received free or reduced-price lunches, a trusted measure of poverty.
It’s clear that Central is rich in diversity, but test data reveals an overwhelming majority of students score poorly in
SAT scores — the statewide test for 11th graders — have declined slightly in recent years, according to state data. In 2019,
average math and language arts scores landed at 803, compared to the district average of 879 and state average of 1,001.
Central’s score this year is down from the 2018 score of 830, and the 2017 score, 833.
On PSAT reading, writing and math scores, the student body as a whole landed below the 15th percentile of Colorado high schools in tests last year, not meeting state benchmarks. Ninth- and 10th-grade students typically take these tests.
But four years into De La Garza’s leadership at the school, there are signs of progress.
According to the district, more Central students are graduating in four years with a regular diploma. The graduation rate there has improved from about 45 percent in 2015 to 70 percent in 2018, according to district data. (Data from 2019 is not yet available, the district said.) That rate also increased for English language learners and students with special needs, according to a school board presentation.
Student drop-out is still an issue, the district says, but that rate is also down. In the 2014-2015 year, 10.5 percent of Central students dropped out. Three years later, that rate was down to 5.7 percent, the district said, citing the most recent data.
The state Department of Education considers class-skipping a gateway to permanent drop-outs, unless staff somehow re-engage these students. At Central, more kids are now going to class when they are supposed to.
The attendance rate has grown from about 75 percent in 2016 to 80 percent last year, according to state data —which means, on average, 80 percent of students went to most of all of their classes on a given day. But the rate is still below about 92 percent in the whole state last year. The district credits the increase to a school initiative, sending staff to knock on truant’s doors, forge connections with families and explain attendance requirements.
And students are improving in the classroom somewhat.
Last year, the state Department of Education rated Central rated students as approaching the state benchmarks for individual, year-after-year growth in all student categories except those with disabilities.
Plus, students learning English met the growth requirements. That’s no small thing for a school that had two-thirds of students speaking English as a second language that year.
For APS Superintendent Rico Munn, indicators including these signify progress. He cited the attendance and discipline data as harbingers.
“We know we have not yet met state expectations when it comes to student growth and achievement,” Munn said. “….Turnaround work, especially at a comprehensive high school, takes time. We believe that what is best for our students, staff, families and community is continuing with our innovation plan and doubling our efforts to improve academic growth and achievement.”
De La Garza said staff have built a strong foundation for advancing the school.
“It starts there: changing the culture and climate of a building,” he said.
A third-party audit of the school concurred.
After observing dozens of classes, studying students’ work and interviewing teachers and schools staff, Billig Consulting said the school culture has improved from “toxic and chaotic” to more orderly.
“Hallways and other common areas were always filled with students and characterized by students and adults yelling at each other, cursing, and jostling each other,” the audit said of the school in years past. “Many students failed to follow any directions issued by deans, monitors, and teachers. Many classrooms had students who were completely off task, talking on cell phones, listening to music on headphones, and interacting with each other both verbally and physically, often without consequence.”
Then, students said they disliked the school and did not feel safe.
Now, “It feels like a different school,” the Billig audit declared.
APS data also shows fewer student behavioral referrals, suspensions and expulsions from just a few years ago.
But class sizes are still large, audits found, and the work of reforming the school is largely dependent on teachers at-risk of burning out.
For almost three years, Central has operated as a kind of laboratory for trying new things to spur better results. The school has won waivers from some district and state regulations to serve as a kind of laboratory of its own — to see what works and what doesn’t in reforming a big, diverse high school.
Central is free from some state and district rules to tweak the calendar, use more budget discretion to bring on a professional development coordinator, and experiment with the different curricula more tailored to students with individual math and language-learning needs.
In 2017, the State Board directed Aurora Central to become an “ Innovation School” with relaxed bureaucracy. Central hired a private company to help overhaul academic systems and the “school climate.” The contract for that company, Mass Insight, is funded this year with about $200,000 in grant funds from CDE.
Implementing new ideas so far has been energizing De La Garza, teachers and school staff, he said.
Notably, they’ve made major changes to the way Central staff interact with, and teach, students.
Teachers are now training each other and communicating more about struggling students, staff said. They’ve implemented wrap-around services, including weekly meetings with cohorts of students, their many teachers, administrators and counselors, to make it harder for students to slip through the cracks. There’s also new curricula not allowed at other schools, tailored for kids struggling with learning English, for example.
And they’ve tweaked the school calendar, closed the campus to ninth and 10th-graders, and are regularly deploying school staff into neighborhoods to visit homes of students that seldom make it to class, The Sentinel reported last year.
The results greatly reduced teacher turnover rates, cited as a crucial indicator of success. In the 2015-2016 school year, Central lost staff in more than half of all teaching positions. But that teacher turnover rate since halved by the 2018-2019 school year, according to district numbers.
De La Garza said that Central now benefits from a solid, core group of teachers with more than a decade of experience in the building.
Veteran instructors have been crucial to developing a teacher-run professional development program. Teachers gather a little earlier than other schools each summer to advance their teaching practices. They then meet regularly during the year to swap information on struggling students, curricula, and the best ways to manage troublesome situations, De La Garza said.
In a school conference room last Monday, De La Garza said he was confident that the school was making hay with its innovation school arrangement.
Last month, APS drafted another, two-year innovation plan. The goal is to improve enough — at the very least — to get the school out of the state’s sights.
The state school board agreed Nov. 14 to let the plan stay the course for another year, but asked Central to hire an additional consultant in the hopes of further jumpstarting academic progress.
APS officials including Munn will also have to reappear before the state board in fall 2020, a year sooner they’d asked for, to show more improvements.
A recent school APS board presentation suggested the innovation plan continue for another three to five years. That’s time the district says is necessary for reforms to take hold.
Is it enough?
The State Board of Education regularly forces struggling schools to pick from a small number of reforms and quickly demonstrate progress.
But research indicates that the work of bringing struggling schools up to speed is a herculean task dependent on students’ home environment — not just their experience at school.
In a recent study, researchers at Ohio State University and University of Southern
California found that students in low-income schools are taught just as much as students in higher-income schools.
But that learning is reduced over summer vacations because of poverty, instability and negative factors at home for low-income students, he said.
The study was recently cited by Ami Baca-Oehlert, President of the Colorado Education Association teacher union, in a conversation about the limits of school reforms such as innovation schools imposed by the state Board of Education.
Lead author Doug Downey, a sociologist, acknowledged people may think it strange that students at lower-income schools such as Aurora Central may learn just as much, considering schools housing wealthier students generally produce better test results.
“If we just test them, we find that they have low skills,” Downey said. “But it’s not clear if that is because of what is going on in a school.”
He said education research generally agrees that students’ lives outside of school are perhaps even more important than time spent in a classroom. Students mirroring the
demographic of Aurora Central may struggle with instability and poverty at home, he said. That means something that seems as inconsequential as a toothache becomes a big deal for a kid in a classroom with no health care.
Research also indicates it’s crucial that kids whose parents at least read to their kids at home benefit greatly. But Downey said it’s common for households to lack even a single book on the shelf.
For example, a district school board presentation noted Aurora Central parents have demonstrated confusion over attendance requirements and are generally unaware of school policies.
But when students are in class, Downey is confident there’s good evidence that schools mitigate and reduce student achievement gaps over time.
Rather than seize on snapshot test results and impose reforms like those at Central, he said making progress in struggling schools probably hinges on addressing big problems: poverty, chronically low wages and funding stripped from schools.
“You can do wrap around services, and you can do little things that rub the edges off,” he said of reforms. “But we need to take seriously that we have an economic structure and political system that produces tremendous inequality.
Obviously, that’s bigger than Aurora’s school board is going to deal with, but that’s the reality,” he added.
It’s about the money
In Colorado, educators and policymakers alike are quick to note that the state education system is hugely underfunded.
Last year, the Aurora Public Schools school board unanimously resolved to support a tax measure for education funding voters ultimately rejected. Before the vote, the APS Board of Education said the district had been robbed of $356 million in funds since 2009 — when the Great Recession hit government coffers hard — and resolved to spend funds from the measure, Amendment 73, on smaller classrooms, expanding access to preschools and increasing teacher benefits and salaries.
Voters again rejected a measure this November, Proposition CC, that proponents said would have raised funding for transportation and education budgets without raising
Another challenge for APS is Aurora Central’s reputation.
Notably, a recent Denver7 news story caught students in a stand-off with a nearby
resident who accused them of throwing away their schooling to skip school and smoke
APS spokesperson Corey Christiansen said the news segment was only part of the story: Soon after, over 100 students organized to clean up the neighborhood and establish better relationships with residents.
But with the tools it has been given and the state school board directives, De La Garza firmly believes the school is making good progress.
The teacher retention rate is up, class-skipping is down, and students are generally approaching the levels where the state school board will give more autonomy back to the district. Last year, teacher surveys indicated that 90 percent wanted to continue working at Aurora Central.
But De La Garza said the long process of bringing the 2,000-student high school up to speed is still a huge task.
“Am I satisfied? No. I’m never satisfied,” he said, while students filled the halls during passing period. “I always want to continue to improve. But I definitely believe that we are moving in the right direction.”