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Students at Mrachek Middle School in Aurora work to solve a math problem. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

Students at Mrachek Middle School in Aurora work to solve a math problem. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

Can Aurora boost its lackluster graduation rate by improving its middle schools?

AURORA — Teachers feel isolated and don’t get enough time to plan, counselors are stretched too thin, and students lack class choices beyond the core subjects in Aurora’s middle schools.

These are among the findings of a group of teachers, principals and administrators who for months have met to discuss challenges at Aurora’s six middle schools and — hopefully — find solutions.

“We know we have a problem,” said Monica Wilbanks, an eighth grade English teacher at Columbia Middle School who served on the committee. “We know our kids aren’t going to high school ready to learn.”

While some of the circumstances driving the need for change at Aurora’s schools are unique, middle grades across the state and country face some of the same hurdles. Middle school teachers are not just expected to challenge students with more difficult content. They also must help students who are coming to grips with being more independent and struggling with the awkwardness of hormones.

“Thirteen-year-olds don’t understand how to operate in the world,” Wilbanks said. “You have to teach them choices and consequences. That’s where we spend a lot of our day — in the social and emotional world.”

The stakes are high: A failure to engage students in the sixth and seventh grades often leads to more dropouts in high schools, research shows.

Aurora’s student achievement record has been dismal. The district’s students — most of whom are poor enough to qualify for federally subsidized lunch — are behind grade level. Student achievement on annual state tests has been so low at three of the district’s middle schools that they face state sanctions if they don’t improve during the next several years.

The committee hopes its proposed changes also will lead to an increase in the district’s historically low graduation rates. Only 55 percent of Aurora high school seniors graduated on time last spring, compared to the state’s average of 77 percent.

To turn the tide, the panel has recommended:

  • Establishing teams of teachers across multiple subjects to teach the same groups of students.
  • Beefing up elective options.
  • Creating an advisory period for students that focuses on their goals and social and emotional needs.
  • Dramatically increasing the number of counselors, deans and security guards at each school.
Mrachek Middle School math teacher Diardra Gascon helps students solve a math problem.

Mrachek Middle School math teacher Diardra Gascon helps students solve a math problem.

Nicholas Garcia

For these changes to take hold, Aurora Public Schools and its teachers union, the Aurora Education Association, must reach agreement this spring on a variety of issues, including deciding how much time teachers get to plan. The school board also would need to shuffle millions of dollars from other initiatives to pay for additional administrators and teachers.

That’s millions of dollars the school district doesn’t have to spare given a new round of budget cuts.

“The electives programs would get kids excited to come to school,” Wilbanks said, adding that before the recession Columbia offered foreign language classes, art and others.

Michelle Davis, principal of Mrachek Middle School, said the district’s middle schools are dramatically understaffed. Most schools have one counselor for every 500 students. The nation’s school counselor association recommends one for every 250 students.

“I don’t think there has been an intent to shortchange middle schools,” said Davis, a committee member. “You’re always transferring kids in and out. Students are more concerned about what their peers think of them. And there is a significant leap in the academic demands.”

Davis and other middle school principals aren’t waiting for the outcome of the district’s contract negotiations or final budget later this spring to begin making some changes.

Some teachers at both Mrachek and Columbia will be working in teams of four or five to coordinate lessons and track students for early signs that they might drop out.

“This allows the village to work with one another,” said.

But how much time Wilbanks and her team will have to coordinate is unclear. Currently, most middle school teachers only have 75 minutes per day to plan. That’s compared to 120 minutes for elementary school teachers and 145 minutes for high school teachers. The lack of planning time for middle school teachers was an unintended consequence of a 2010 arbitration hearing between the district and the teachers union.

The lack of time makes it difficult to plan different lessons for students with a wide range of abilities, let alone meet with other teachers, Wilbanks said.

Douglas Mac Iver, a John Hopkins University researcher who has studied middle schools, said Aurora appears to be on the right track.

“The educators in Aurora are very wise to realize that doing things differently at the middle school level improves graduation rates,” he said.

Students at Mrachek Middle School listen to their math teacher.

Students at Mrachek Middle School listen to their math teacher.

Nicholas Garcia

He said the schools’ top priority should be creating teams of teachers who can work together to keep students in the classroom and engaged.

“Middle school students discover they have more opportunities to wander off and not go to school,” he said, adding that chronic absenteeism in middle school often leads to students dropping out.

He said APS’s middle schools should have school-wide efforts to boost attendance as well as targeted programs to meet specific needs of students who are showing early signs that they might drop out.

But that takes people power, which requires more money for middle schools, he said.

“It’s helpful to have extra boots on the ground beyond your team of teachers who can go deeper on what’s going on with a kid who is not showing up regularly or showing up angry,” he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported Monica Wilbanks’ last name.