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.’”

Local funding

Aurora board to consider placing school tax hike on November ballot

A kindergarten teacher at Kenton Elementary in Aurora, Colorado helps a student practice saying and writing numbers on a Thursday afternoon in February 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Seeking to boost student health and safety and raise teacher pay, Aurora school officials will consider asking voters to approve a $35 million tax plan in November.

The school board will hear its staff’s proposal for the proposed ballot measure Tuesday. The board may discuss the merits of the plan but likely would not decide whether to place it on the ballot until at least the following week.

Aurora voters in 2016 approved a bond request which allowed the district to take on $300 million in debt for facilities, including the replacement building for Mrachek Middle School, and building a new campus for a charter school from the DSST network.

But this year’s proposed tax request is for a mill levy override, which is ongoing local money that is collected from property taxes and has less limitations for its use.

Aurora officials are proposing to use the money, estimated to be $35 million in 2019, to expand staff and training for students’ mental health services, expanding after-school programs for elementary students, adding seat belts to school buses, and boosting pay “to recruit and retain high quality teachers.”

The estimated cost for homeowners would be $98.64 per year, or $8.22 per month, for each $100,000 of home value.

Based on previous discussions, current board members appear likely to support the recommendation.

During budget talks earlier this year, several board members said they were interested in prioritizing funding for increased mental health services. The district did allocate some money from the 2018-19 budget to expand services, described as the “most urgent,” and mostly for students with special needs, but officials had said that new dollars could be needed to do more.

The teacher pay component was written into the contract approved earlier this year between the district and the teachers union. If Aurora voters approved the tax measure, then the union and school district would reopen negotiations to redesign the way teachers are paid.

In crafting the recommendation, school district staff will explain findings from focus groups and polling. Based on polls conducted of 500 likely voters by Frederick Polls, 61 percent said in July they would favor a school tax hike.

The district’s presentation for the board will also note that outreach and polling indicate community support for teacher pay raises, student services and other items that a tax hike would fund.



Language barriers

Aurora school district expands translation and interpretation in response to parent demands

Patricia Shaw, an interpreter for Aurora Public Schools, left, shows Indonesia Maye how to use the transmitters during a back-to-school event at Aurora West College Preparatory Academy on August 6. Maye was hired by the district to interpret to Somali students and their families at the event. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

Hsa Mlu, a mother of four children, recently started receiving communications from her sons’ Aurora schools in her native Southeast Asian language, Karen.

“I am so excited,” Mlu, who has two sons in Aurora schools, said through an interpreter. “I am sure it’s going to be better for parents.”

In the past Mlu said that when she received communications in English from her children’s schools, she would rush it over to a friend’s house — even in the rain or snow — to ask for help.

“I didn’t understand what I had to do or what it was for,” Mlu said.

Mlu is one of the parent leaders who has been working with the nonprofit organization RISE Colorado for more than a year to ask Aurora Public Schools to improve language services. Parents, like Mlu, have shared stories with the district and the school board, about how their language barriers have prevented them from being more involved in their children’s education. Teachers also said it was a problem for them.

Top 10 languages in APS by number of parents who have listed it as a preference for communication

  • English, 26,617
  • Spanish, 11,316
  • Amharic, 386
  • Nepali, 268
  • Somali, 241
  • Burmese, 205
  • Vietnamese, 174
  • Arabic, 171
  • Karen, 157
  • French, 119

Source: Aurora Public Schools

In response, the district last year started working on translating some documents, and training secretaries and school staff to use the district’s system to send out automated calls in various languages. Board members responded by passing a resolution to prohibit educators from relying on children to translate official or formal discussions with parents. And this summer, the district included $200,000 in its 2018-19 budget to centralize language services under the communications office.

“Our families are feeling really excited that their voices were heard,” said RISE Colorado’s co-founder and CEO Veronica Crespin-Palmer.

Now Aurora educators, such as principals and teachers, can use a simplified, common form online to ask the district for help with translations or interpretations for their students’ families.

It’s a change from years past when language help was scattered among various district departments with each department available for only particular purposes. It was a process educators and families said wasn’t easy to understand.

Having all of the district’s expertise in one office now should help in coordinating and filling language requests, said Patti Moon, the district’s chief communication officer.

District officials expect that the simplified process will increase demand for translation or interpretation services this school year, and so the district is preparing to expand its abilities with the allocated money.

In part, that means adding services in more languages. Right now, Aurora has in-house language services for Spanish, but in a district where families have listed 143 different languages as their preferred language, there’s a need for more.

In one step to make more interpreters available, the district has been certifying its own bilingual staff in translation, so they can be available after work to pick up assignments translating or interpreting for school or district events. Currently, district officials say there are more than 120 district-approved interpreters, and officials want to recruit more. District interpreters and other staff can provide interpretation in 14 languages.

The district also has a partnership with interpreters-in-training from the Community College of Aurora.

Aurora also plans to use some of the money to improve quality by providing professional training to language services staff.

But the parents’ work will continue, said the mother, Mlu. Parents requested to continue monthly meetings with the district’s language staff to provide feedback about how the schools are rolling out the changes. The district agreed to continue the collaboration.

In addition to streamlining its internal communications, the district is providing one service designed for parents and the community: the introduction of language identification cards.

RISE parents designed the business-size cards that the district printed in the top 10 languages, with a blank space for people to fill in their name to show school attendants what language they speak. Accompanying one-sheet forms include translations of common requests such as excusing a child from school, requesting a meeting with a teacher, or asking for an interpreter. (See a copy of both below)

The cards will be made available in schools for parents to use and have an easier time communicating simple requests, or asking for an interpreter.

Crespin-Palmer said she hopes the cards, the process, and the changes the district is making can be a model for other districts.

Mlu said she appreciates the significant changes she’s seen so far. But, she said, she’s still wants the district to know she’s watching.

“We are parent leaders, and we keep watching the for the interpretation and translation to improve,” she said. “We’re working toward it too.”