B is for Bokwa

Bok-what? Aurora schools try a new form of fitness

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

Don’t feel bad if you don’t know what Bokwa is. You’re not alone.

But if you go to Aurora’s Dalton Elementary on a Friday afternoon, you’ll soon understand the district’s newest after-school fitness activity. Rob Johnson, the energetic P.E. teacher who the kids call “Coach,” will be at the front of the gym with 40 students in scattershot rows behind him.

He’ll play a pop song like “Timber” on his laptop, throw a hand above his head to signal the group, and they’ll launch into a fast-paced Zumba-like dance routine. What’s hard to see is that the students are essentially making the shapes of letters and numbers on the floor with each series of steps, hops and kicks.

Dalton Elementary P.E. teacher Rob Johnson demonstrates Bokwa steps on a recent afternoon.
Dalton Elementary P.E. teacher Rob Johnson demonstrates Bokwa steps on a recent afternoon.

Think of it as cardio dance with a paint-by-numbers sort of ease. In an era where schools are increasingly trying to get students moving—both to prevent obesity and facilitate learning—Bokwa’s accessibility is part of the attraction.

It was  created in the early 2000s by Los Angeles fitness instructor and native South African Paul Mavi. The name combines “bo” from light boxing and  “kwa” from kwaito, a South African musical genre.

“It’s good music and if you’re drawing letters with your feet…they can relate,” said Johnson, who also uses Bokwa in his PE classes. “It’s easy for them to do it. It’s not like six or seven hard dance moves like when we did Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.’” (Yes, Johnson taught his students the Thriller dance.)

Dalton is among five Aurora schools that now offer after-school Bokwa classes, and administrators say they hope to see more schools sign on. All told, two dozen district schools, including Dalton, began offering some kind of after-school exercise programs this year as part of the district’s “Physical Opportunity Programs” or POP, funded with a $200,000 Thriving Schools grant from Kaiser Permanente Colorado.

The goal is to create a culture of daily physical activity at participating schools, said Curtis Robbins, Kaiser’s senior manager of youth health and educational theater programs.

“I think people are getting much more interested in how do we think about physical activity creatively and engage people creatively around it,” he said. “Kids, they’re not really engaged when you say ‘Lets get up and do jumping jacks.’”

Third-grader Aiden Bojang, who’s become a regular at Johnson’s Friday Bokwa sessions, said it’s “because I have a lot of energy and I like to move around a lot.” Without the classes, he said he’d probably be at home playing Minecraft.

Participation in Bokwa classes has increased steadily since Johnson started them last October.

“I keep getting at least five new people every week,” he said, as he caught his breath after a recent session. “Last week I was so excited, I ran into the office and was like, “Best class ever!”

Girl smiling during bokwa

Sasha Gard, a spritely third-grader who volunteered that she takes nine hours of dance lessons each week, said she was sold on Bokwa when she found out it was another form of her favorite activity. The only problem, she said, is that she’s short and can’t always see Johnson demonstrate the steps if she can’t snag a front row spot.

Indeed, the classes are so new that most participants have to watch Johnson carefully so they can follow along. During last Friday’s recent class, Johnson paused frequently to explain the steps for a new letter or number.

“Right, left, right, left, punch, kick with your knees,” he called at one point. A few minutes later, he shouted, “If you get lost, wait till we go to a ‘one.’ I will try to put as many ‘ones’ in there as possible.”

Aurora administrators say the district is the only one in the state currently offering Bokwa in schools. The activity, while growing in popularity at health clubs in the United States and abroad, is still relatively unknown.

Dalton parent David  Lozornio said when his daughter Melissa brought a flier home about the Friday Bokwa classes, he went on the Internet to learn more.

“I never heard of it,” he said. “I did some research [to] see what it was about.”

So far, students aren’t the only ones coming to the classes. Last Friday, about 10 teachers and a few parents filled in spots at the back and along the edges of Dalton’s gym. One of them was third grade teacher Amy Smith.

She’d attended Johnson’s class a few weeks before because it’s one way for staff members to get workout credit through the district’s “Biggest Loser” competition. She liked it so much, she signed up to take the official day-long Bokwa training the district is offering in February. Once she gets the training, she hopes to incorporate the activity into classroom brain breaks.

“It’s very kid-friendly…Once you learn the steps you can put them together in any order,” she said. “And the kids that are here with me from my class, they are so excited. Then on Monday they’re like, ‘I got to dance with Miss Smith.’”

performance based

Aurora superintendent is getting a bonus following the district’s improved state ratings

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

Aurora’s school superintendent will receive a 5 percent bonus amounting to $11,820, in a move the board did not announce.

Instead, the one-time bonus was slipped into a routine document on staff transitions.

Tuesday, the school board voted on the routine document approving all the staff changes, and the superintendent bonus, without discussion.

The document, which usually lists staff transfers, resignations, and new hires, included a brief note at the end that explained the additional compensation by stating it was being provided because of the district’s rise in state ratings.

“Pursuant to the superintendent’s contract, the superintendent is entitled to a one-time bonus equal to 5 percent of his base salary as the result of the Colorado Department of Education raising APS’ district performance framework rating,” the note states.

The superintendent’s contract, which was renewed earlier this year, states the superintendent can receive up to a 10 percent bonus per year for improvements in state ratings. The same bonus offer was in Munn’s previous contract with the district.

The most recent state ratings, which were released in the fall, showed the state had noted improvements in Aurora Public Schools — enough for the district to be off the state’s watchlist for low performance. Aurora would have been close to the five years of low-performance ratings that would have triggered possible state action.

“I am appreciative of the Board’s recognition of APS’ overall improvement,” Superintendent Munn said in a statement Wednesday. “It is important to recognize that this improvement has been thanks to a team effort and as such I am donating the bonus to the APS Foundation and to support various classroom projects throughout APS.”

This is the only bonus that Munn has received in Aurora, according to a district spokesman.

In addition to the bonus, and consistent with his contract and the raises other district employees will receive, Munn will also get a 2.93 percent salary increase on July 1. This will bring his annual salary to $243,317.25.

At the end of the board meeting, Bruce Wilcox, president of the teachers union questioned the way the vote was handled, asking why the compensation changes for teachers and compensation changes for other staff were placed as separate items on the meeting’s agenda, but the bonus was simply included at the bottom of a routine report, without its own notice.

“It is clear that the association will unfortunately have to become a greater, louder voice,” Wilcox said. “It is not where we want to be.”

budget book

Aurora school board approves the budget, but will continue transparency discussions to change the level of detail available

A student works at Tollgate Elementary School in Aurora. (Photo by Nic Garcia, Chalkbeat)

Aurora school board members on Tuesday unanimously approved next school year’s $746.8 million budget after months of heated discussions over whether the district had provided the public enough detail about it.

The budget represents a 4.7 percent drop from the current year, because of declines in enrollment and thus state dollars. It does include money for salary increases, but it was Aurora’s transparency, or lack of it, that has generated the most controversy.

But just because the budget was approved doesn’t mean the transparency discussion has ended.

New board member Kyla Armstrong-Romero — the first to press for more information after district officials said they planned on raising student athletic fees — said Tuesday she will keep asking the district for more detailed budget documents.

“I understand the necessity to approve the budget on time,” Armstrong-Romero said. But, she said, she’s back to the drawing board to see how to go about making more requests.

Brett Johnson, Aurora’s chief financial officer, said releasing more detail would be better, but said his department didn’t have the capacity to change what it provides quickly.

“We want to make a budget book that is more user friendly,” Johnson told the board. But he added, “there would be a lot of upfront costs associated with rebuilding and rethinking the style of this budget.”

As an example, he said, the Cherry Creek district has double the budget staff that Aurora does, including one full-time employee that collects numbers from schools.

After November’s election, Aurora’s new board majority began to insist on more budget detail – in contrast with the previous board, which sought budget overviews.

Aurora Public Schools has had four budget directors in four years, including Johnson who started 15 months ago. The finance department has struggled to maintain consistency.

In recent years, board members had prioritized accesible information that could easily make sense to anyone. Officials pointed to the creation of a two-page budget summary for the first time last year, and the launch last summer of an interactive website that breaks down budget allocations.

Armstrong-Romero said she wanted more detail to understand where next year’s budget was different from the current year’s budget or previous years’ budgets. She asked for comparable line-item documents, and explanations of what made up big buckets of spending.

Specifically, she asked for numbers to understand the tradeoffs of not making certain budget cuts.

Superintendent Rico Munn told the board that he could not ask staff to create multiple proposed budgets just to detail all the various scenarios.

Board members talked about other district’s budgets. Denver Public Schools, for example, launched a new budget book earlier this year that includes a breakdown of where every dollar allocated per student gets spent.

“For me, it’s inconceivable that our community does not merit the same level of transparency,” Armstrong-Romero said.

Munn said that there are differences in communities, but disputed the thought that different information meant less transparency.

“Our community certainly deserves transparency, but that looks different ways in different communities,” Munn said. “It may be fair to say we haven’t struck the right tone or that there’s room to improve, which we’ve already indicated, but clearly we are not trying to hide anything.”

Some board members said that they didn’t need details down to how much was spent on each pencil at each school, but board member Kevin Cox said the conversation doesn’t have to be about one or the other, and suggested both a detailed book, and overview summaries should be available for the public.

Aurora is already searching for software to automate its budget and to skip manual data entry.

Johnson said that currently three people enter 30,000 pieces of data. “We are hoping to automate that with a better system,” he said.

Jonathan Travers, a partner at the Massachusetts-based nonprofit Education Resource Strategies, suggested districts can provide budget detail in many ways. One way is to focus on the strategy behind financial decisions.

He said “hundreds of pages of detail on accounting… is far less helpful than a few pages” on the ways in which the district allocates resources.

Board members also talked earlier this month about doing an audit, or hiring a consultant to help rethink the budget.

Colorado already requires outside audits of school district spending. Those audit reports look at many aspects of finance procedures, and are made public, but they lag because they focus on the actual dollar amounts after they’ve been spent.

Budgets, however, aren’t required to be audited because they are only proposed plan for where to allocate money.

At a budget hearing, one teacher said he supported Armstrong-Romero’s request for more budget information to help the board make decisions, and reminded the four new board members that they ran on a platform of transparency.