learning on the move

Fresh air, exercise and a dose of learning

Fifth-graders at Kenton Elementary school participate listen to a 16-minute podcast on trickster characters in literature.

There wasn’t a whisper of conversation among Kari Burkett’s fifth-graders as they walked a mile around the grounds of Aurora’s Kenton Elementary School on a recent sunny morning. Just the sound of footfalls and the caw of birds flying overhead.

The students, all equipped with small black listening devices and earphones, were absorbed in a recording about trickster characters like Br’er Rabbit. The walk-and-listen routine happens once or twice a week in Burkett’s classroom.

Laura Fenn, executive director of The Walking Classroom Institute, came up with the idea when she was a fifth-grade teacher. She bought a class set of MP3 players using grant funds and recorded her own lessons or downloaded content from the Internet.
Laura Fenn, executive director of The Walking Classroom Institute, came up with the idea when she was a fifth-grade teacher. At first, she bought a class set of MP3 players using grant funds and recorded her own lessons or downloaded Internet content.

It’s part of The Walking Classroom, a four-year-old program based in Chapel Hill, NC, that allows students to get exercise while they listen to standards-aligned podcasts on language arts, history and science. In an era when many teachers feel overwhelmed by the push for better test scores and health advocates regularly sound the alarm on childhood obesity, The Walking Classroom attempts to address both problems.

All told, more than 30 fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms in 20 Colorado schools, from the Denver area up to Loveland, participate in the program. Many of the schools have large populations of low-income students or English-language learners.

Normally, a classroom set of Walking Classroom materials, including listening devices called WalkKits, costs $3,000, but sponsors like Kaiser Permanente Colorado allow many schools to participate for free. Burkett said the audio lesson, which correlate particularly well with her writing lessons, give students new ways to learn and reinforce academic content.

“I have a variety of learners, a variety of different language-learners…it’s an opportunity to do something different instead of just listening to me,” she said. “[They’re] able to connect a little bit more to what we’re learning in class.”

Program co-founder Laura Fenn, who visited Kenton and other participating Colorado schools last week, emphasized the link between exercise and attention.

The Walking Classroom

  • Launched: 2011
  • Used in: 46 states, including in more than 30 Colorado classrooms in 20 schools
  • Not to be used during: Physical education class or recess
  • 2014-15 Kaiser Permanente Colorado sponsorship: $95,000 for 21 classroom sets
  • More information: thewalkingclassroom.org

“We hear over and over again that the kids come back [from Walking Classroom sessions] and they’re more focused, they’re more productive and they’ve gotten some exercise,” she said.

The positive effect of exercise on the brain is something Carla Witt, a Kaiser Permanente doctor who also visited Kenton last week, said is clearly visible in magnetoencephalagrams, or pictures of the brain.

“When you have someone who’s been sitting…they’re recruiting just a fraction of their brain,” she said. “When you have them walk like this and now you take a picture of their brain…they’re recruiting substantially more.”

Jonathan Rodriguez shows off his WalkKit before heading outside. The devices come pre-loaded with 85-90 podcasts that are aligned to fourth- and fifth-grade Common Core standards.
Jonathan Rodriguez shows off his WalkKit before heading outside. The devices come pre-loaded with 85-90 podcasts that are aligned to fourth- and fifth-grade Common Core standards.

In their own way, students also seem to notice a difference.

Ten-year-old Katherine Sanchez said she likes The Walking Classroom “because I get to exercise and when I come to learn I get the questions that the teacher asks right.”

Burkett and another teacher at Kenton adopted The Walking Classroom last year after the school got two classroom sets of the WalkKits through a Kaiser sponsorship. At first, she wasn’t sure how the program would work.

“There’s so many assessments and we have a pretty rigorous schedule.”

Nevertheless, she set aside 15-20 minutes for The Walking Classroom every Friday, and sometimes other days of the week. She assigned a leader and a caboose and students soon got used to strolling around the playground while listening to lessons on everything from similes to famous poems.

“If we don’t get to do it every week they get pretty disappointed,” said Burkett.

one-time money

Aurora school district has more money than expected this year

Jordan Crosby and her students in her kindergarten class at Crawford Elementary on February 17, 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Brent Lewis/The Denver Post)

The Aurora school district will have a slight influx of one-time money to spend on teacher pay and curriculum upgrades after seeing higher than expected increases in property tax revenue and accurately forecasting a decline in student enrollment.

The district received almost $9 million more in revenue than the $341.4 that was budgeted, and started the year with almost $11 million more than expected left over from last year.

The school board for Aurora Public Schools gave the budget changes initial approval at a board meeting Tuesday night.

Last year, when Aurora was reassessing its budget in January, officials found that they had to make mid-year cuts. This year’s mid-year changes, however, were good news, officials said, as the district finds itself with more money than they planned to have.

“In large part it’s because we hit our projections about enrollment,” Brett Johnson, the district’s chief financial officer, told the school board. “Because we hit it right on the dot, a lot of what we are going to discuss is good news.”

Aurora schools recorded an official student count this fall of 40,920 preschoolers through 12th graders. That’s down from 41,797 students counted last year.

It’s a drop that district officials were expecting this time.

The district also brought in more property tax revenues than expected.

Johnson said district officials based their projections for the current school year’s budget on a property tax increase of about 9 percent. But revenues from property values actually increased by almost twice that amount. Typically when districts get more money from local property taxes, their share of state money goes down, making it a wash, but because Aurora has mill levy overrides, it can take advantage of some of the increase.

Robin Molliconi, the administrative division supervisor in the Arapahoe County Assessor’s Office, said that while there has been new construction and development within the school district’s boundaries, most of the increased revenue is a result of higher assessed values of existing properties.

As budget officials in the district closed out last school year’s budget, they also found that there was more money left over than they expected. Johnson said district leaders believe that may have been a result of district staff spending more cautiously at the end of last year when officials were expecting big budget cuts.

If the school board gives the budget amendments final approval at their next board meeting, the district will use $5 million of the unexpected dollars to upgrade curriculum, $3.1 million to give teachers a pay raise that the district had previously agreed to with the union, and $1.8 million to launch a pilot to try to better fill hard-to-staff positions.

Johnson said some of the money will also go to the district’s reserve account that had been spent down in previous years when enrollment had dropped much more than expected.

Clarification: More information was added to the story to explain that Aurora has mill levy overrides.

year in review

Aurora school district saw accountability, charter and budget changes in 2017

First graders eat their lunch at Laredo Elementary School in Aurora. (Photo by Seth McConnell/The Denver Post)

Reform work in Aurora schools was on the fast track in 2017.

In the spring, Aurora Public Schools officials defended their work to improve the district’s lowest performing school, Aurora Central High School, in front of the State Board of Education. The school, having had multiple years of low performance, was one of the first to face sanctions for poor performance. But after the district made their case, the state board approved a plan that allows the district to continue rolling out the school’s innovation plan with a deadline of demonstrating improvements within two years.

The district, meanwhile, received good news this year: that it was no longer at risk of facing state sanctions itself after a rise in state ratings.

More recently, the district began looking at the next school, Paris Elementary, that could face the same fate as the high school, and is considering changes to lift that school’s achievement before the state intervenes.

That school, like Aurora Central, is part of the district’s innovation zone — a group of schools with more flexibility than traditional district-run schools. The zone was introduced in Aurora in 2015, but officials are still fine-tuning the work at those schools, including on their goals and budgets.

The district as a whole made many changes to their budget and school funding process in 2017. After a better-than-predicted state budget that was finalized in the spring, district leaders didn’t have to make all the cuts they were considering.

But in the process of scrutinizing the budget to find where they could make cuts, district officials decided to cut funding to six schools that operated under special plans created with the district’s teachers union.

The district is still closely watching enrollment numbers that continue to drop. Besides the impact on the budget, the changing enrollment picture prompted the district to consider a different kind of long-term plan for its buildings and future priorities.

Both the district’s reforms and budget discussions were big issues in this fall’s school board election, which saw a union-backed slate win four seats on the seven-member board.

The other big issue in the election was around the district’s work with charter schools. This summer, the Aurora school board approved the contracts for a new DSST charter school. The district is also considering consequences for charter schools that are low performing, and working with one charter to see if it can operate a center-based program for students with special needs.

Another effort that attracted attention this year was the district’s work to diversify its workforce, specifically principals.

Expect many more changes next year.