When the school bell rings next year at Aurora Public Schools’ new building at 6th Avenue and Airport Road, students should expect to get more than a lesson in A-B-Cs and 1-2-3s.
They’ll also get a lesson in the art of resiliency.
APS officials hope an unusual school model that emphasizes students’ social and emotional well-being and that aims to provide students with skills to overcome some of life’s greatest obstacles — hunger, homelessness, algebra — will be a game-changer for the academically-struggling school district.
And while district and school leaders have been working steadily toward opening the new pre-kindergarten through eighth grade school for months, the work is about to intensify.
District and school officials broke ground at the campus’ site last night. So as crane operators and construction crews begin to lay the physical foundation, school principal Carrie Clark, an Aurora Public Schools veteran, is laying the instructional foundation blocks away in a nondescript office.
Who has the more back-breaking job is to still to be determined.
‘R’ stand for resilient
Neither a name nor a mascot has been selected for the new Aurora school, which will enroll students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. But, as currently conceived, the school will be defined by the word ‘resilient.’
When Carrie Clark interviewed for the position of principal at the new school, district leaders asked her to define and relate to the word. Clark, who eventually got the job, in turn has been asking staff applicants the same question.
“Resiliency is a process you go through,” she said. “And it will be a big piece of the interview process. We need to know how our teachers will connect with that word, that process.”
And whether she’s at a community town halls or district board meeting, Clark is spreading the word every where she goes.
So what does it mean? As Clark builds her team of teachers and office staff, and as the community becomes more involved leading up to the school opening, she says the word’s definition is bound to change.
But so far, for Clark, it means her future students will tap into their own strengths, learn specific skills to cope, recover from adversity, and be prepared for future challenges.
Clark and district officials believe her future students will likely need those skills to drive their academic progress.
Preliminary data Clark presented to the Aurora Board of Education last month shows a sample of students who are likely to attend the new school are currently below grade level. And those students are barely showing the kind of academic growth they would need to be at grade level in three years. In other words, the school, before it even opens, is liable to find itself on the state’s watch list — unless Clark’s team can lead students to make massive academic gains.
Chief Academic Officer John Youngquist said it’s important the district prepare for the likelihood students will need to catch up.
“We’re working very hard to study and understand what the challenges and assets of our students are,” he said during an interview. “Let’s not wonder what that first year will be like.”
Like several other Colorado school districts that serve primarily students of color and low-income families, APS is just two years away from facing state sanctions if student test results don’t improve on standardized tests.
Youngquist believes Clark — and the new model — is up for the job.
He pointed to Clark’s experience working with both elementary and middle school students and her ability to create a vibrant school culture and lead a team of teachers.
But student data from Altura Elementary School, where Clark served as principal for four years, showed proficiency rates in most subjects are below both the state and district average. The school, which overwhelmingly serves low-income students of color, posted growth scores that demonstrated that students learned at an accelerated rate in 2012 and 2013, but that pace of growth slowed this year.
Clark, who began her new duties before the most recent data was available and who has not had the opportunity to dissect it with her Altura teachers, said she was concerned about the slower growth.
Rich school, poor school
The new P-8 school, which is currently financed by private-sector loans, is expected to draw students from a variety of schools in APS that right now are bursting at the seams. Schools in nearly every corner of Aurora are at capacity and there seems to be no indication of a slowdown in student enrollment.
A committee, established earlier this year, is meeting regularly to draw the attendance boundary lines for the new school. The committee should make a boundary recommendation to the Aurora school board early next year.
As part of its work, the committee is reviewing the boundaries of 10 other schools from Vista PEAK P-8 in the east to Side Creek Elementary in the south.
The committee has been asked to ensure students who live near each other attend the same schools and to try and minimize bus ride times.
What they have not been asked to do is ensure that the school is socioeconomically diverse.
Even though the new school will be surrounded by neighborhoods of many different levels of affluence, creating a socio-economically diverse school, which some education researchers believe is critical for boosting student achievement for both low-income students and their more affluent peers, isn’t listed as a priority on the committee’s Web page.
How the committee draws the boundaries could mean the difference between creating a school that is mostly affluent, poor or mixed. According to U.S. Census figures, Airport Road, which runs north and south through Aurora, acts as a sort of dividing line between poorer households and those more affluent. For example, those homes immediately west of Airport Road average about $37,000 in household incomes while those to the immediate east average more than $80,000.
The new school is also expected to enroll a sizable number of students from families stationed at the Buckley Air Force Base, which is about 13 minutes away from the campus.
Students from military families have bring their own challenges for educators. Mobility can be very high military families who move from base to base. And those students are either academically significantly ahead or behind their peers.
A new path for APS
While Aurora Public Schools has been researching and building a model for the school around resiliency for nearly a year, Youngquist said the district is contemplating a number of other options to ensure a successful school. Chief among them: innovation status.
APS has a history of granting schools certain autonomies from districtwide policies, but so far, no school inside its boarders has yet to ask the state for innovation status, which would allow them to chart their own path on certain state and district requirements. With innovation status, school leaders are often freed of certain previsions from any collective bargaining agreement with a union as well. That opens up opportunities for extended and more site-based decisions.
That could change with the school at 6th Avenue and Airport.
“We’re studying what resources and autonomies would creates the best success for the school,” Youngquist said. “All options are available.”
The school’s out-of-the-ordinary model, based on the research of Paul Tough and Kenneth R. Ginsburg, is also a double-down of sorts for APS. The district, through a series of strategic steps, appears to be embracing the social and emotional needs of students in a far greater way than before.
“We’re responding to academic data,” Youngquist said. “We’re responding to school climate and behavioral challenges. There is a clear intention [districtwide] to more fully engage with students academically.”