Game changer

Game-based learning give students a challenge outside of textbooks

PHOTO: Susan Gonzalez
A student forms their first name initial with Play-Doh while holding a hula hoop. The teacher guided him through a series of tasks while blindfolded as part of a game that was meant to teach trust.

Aiden Alexander is stranded in the middle of nowhere and armed only with a few items, including a cinch sack and machete, after his car runs out of gas. The rain makes the situation more difficult — it’s a lot to handle for an eighth grader.

Luckily for Alexander, it’s just a game at a workshop meant to teach him how to think on his feet as a sticky situation changes.

Using games to teach students isn’t a new concept. But some hope this classroom technique can be revamped to focus on “21st century skills,” such as critical thinking and creativity, as Alexander learned about in his game.

Game-based learning might also soon make its most substantial debut in Colorado in the fall of 2016 as the basis of a new school in the Aurora Public Schools system.

Game-like learning is exactly what it sounds like: Teachers use games to teach. Engaging with hands-on activities allows students to learn both specific lesson and a broader concepts, like how to collaborate as a team or how to solve problems, simultaneously.

“Games are really good at helping players achieve a goal,” said Ilena Parker, senior communications manager for Institute of Play, a nonprofit organization that promotes using games to teach students. “They help you learn the skills you need to achieve that goal. They give you feedback on how you’re doing and they let you try again when you fail.”

Earlier this month, the institute held a workshop in Denver, where students and teachers could sample educational games. This was a joint event with William Smith High School and the Hive Denver learning community.

According to some research on game-based learning, students who use games to learn work harder voluntarily. Studies have also shown students who use games to learn will retain more factual knowledge and skill-based knowledge than their non-game playing peers.

While the games are fictional, the lessons are not, Parker said.

“Games are really awesome at developing 21st century skills, things like creativity, collaboration, communication, problem solving, critical thinking,” Parker said. “Teachers can kind of incorporate learning goals into a game and it makes it more engaging and more memorable for students.”

The Institute of Play, which also operates a school in New York City, is working with leaders at William Smith High School, an expeditionary learning school in Aurora, to give game-like learning a permanent home. If the district’s school board approves, The Studio School, as it’s being called, will open in the fall of 2016 and use game design and student input to shape curriculum.

“Educators spend so much time trying to develop ourselves and design curriculum, thinking about ‘what would be great for students to do? How do we want them to learn? Let’s create this amazing experience for students,'” said Jackson Westenskow, who is helping lead the push for The Studio School. “And the one group we never ask for help with that is the students.”

But introducing more games into classrooms does not come without its challenges. A 2014 survey of teachers found that finding money to pay for the game materials and technology, identifying games that fit with instruction, and creating professional development programs so teachers are trained to use games effectively in classrooms, are potential barriers.

Back at the institute’s summer workshop, Alexander said he wouldn’t mind learning this way regularly. While the game was mentally tough, he enjoyed the challenge.

“I liked the freedom it had. It helps with critical thinking because I had to think of a way to go along with the situation,” said Alexander, who attends Excel Academy in Denver. “I would love to play this in school.”


Struggling Aurora elementary must decide next steps on recommendations

Teachers at Lyn Knoll Elementary should get more than 20 minutes per day for planning, school officials should consider switching to a district-selected curriculum for literacy, and the school should find a way to survey neighborhood families who send their children to school elsewhere.

Those are some of the recommendations for improvement presented to Aurora’s school board this week by a committee overseeing the work at Lyn Knoll.

But because the school has a status that allows it more autonomy, those recommendations cannot be turned into mandates, committee members told the school board this week. Instead, school officials must now weigh these suggestions and decide which they might follow.

Bruce Wilcox, president of the Aurora teachers union and member of the joint steering committee, said he doesn’t expect every recommendation “to come to fruition,” but said whether or not each recommendation is followed is not what’s important.

“It really will come down to, is improvement made or not,” Wilcox said.

Rico Munn, the superintendent of Aurora Public Schools, had recommended Lyn Knoll for turnaround after the school fell to the state’s lowest quality rating last year. Enrollment at the school has also dropped. But the Aurora school board voted instead to wait another year to see if the school itself can make improvements.

Munn Thursday suggested that the board may still make part of that decision contingent on approval of the school’s action plan.

The union-led joint steering committee that wrote the recommendations offered to monitor and guide the school during the 2018-19 school year as it tries to improve, but it’s a role the group has never taken on before. Part of that role has already started with committee members visiting the school for observations.

“The purpose of the joint steering committee is to be a place the schools can go to and ask for guidance,” Wilcox said. “This is where it’s doing well.”

Lyn Knoll is one of three district-run schools in Aurora that have pilot status, which was created about 10 years ago when the district worked with its teachers union to create a path for schools to earn autonomy.

This was before Colorado passed the law that allows schools to seek innovation status, which is a state process that grants schools waivers from some state, district, and union rules as a way to try new ideas.

“At the time that pilot schools came in, our district was very lockstep,” Wilcox said. “What was done at one school was done at the other. That was the framework.”

Schools that wanted to try something different or unique could apply to the district for pilot status if they had a plan with school and community support. Each pilot school also had to create a school governing board that could include teachers and community members that would help the school make decisions.

At Lyn Knoll, one of the popular innovations involved letting students have physical education every day of the week, something not common in many schools.

Another of the district’s pilot schools, William Smith High School, uses its status to lead a school unlike any other in the district, with a project-based learning model where students learn standards from different subjects through real-life scenarios and projects.

The Aurora district, like many districts around the country, now has created more ways beyond pilot status for principals to make specific changes at their school.

In Aurora, Munn said the current structure of the district, which now has “learning communities,” is meant to be responsive to the differences between groups of schools.

“We’re really trying to strongly connect different parts of the district and be flexible and there are different ways of doing that,” Munn said.

Schools can come to the district and request permission to use a different curriculum, for instance, or to change their school calendar so students can be released early on certain days for teacher planning time. There’s also a district application process so that schools that need specific help or resources from the district can request them. And more recently, schools that want several, structured, waivers are more likely to apply for the state’s innovation status, which provides “a stronger framework,” Munn said.

The district said current pilot school principals could not speak about their school model for this story.

Lyn Knoll currently has no principal for next year. Officials at Thursday’s board meeting suggested waiting until a new principal is identified or hired so that person could work with the school’s governing board on a plan for change. It was unclear how soon that might happen, although finalists are being scheduled for interviews next week.

Clarification: The story has been updated to reflect that the need for a principal at Lyn Knoll is for next year.

Give and take

Aurora district may start sharing local dollars with charters a year early, in exchange for higher fees

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at the AXL Academy charter school in Aurora work on math problems in 2015.

The Aurora school district has a plan for how to comply with last year’s law requiring that districts share local funding with their charter schools, and it includes raising the fees that it charges those schools.

The law requires districts that weren’t already sharing the funds from voter-approved tax increases to do so.

Rico Munn, Aurora’s superintendent, argued against the move last year, but the law ultimately passed. It allows school district’s time to plan and doesn’t go into effect until the fall of 2019.

District leaders told the school board during a meeting last week there was no reason to wait.

“Our budget decisions don’t get easier in future years, and it’s kind of our position that it’s easier to rip the bandaid off now than it is to wait one more year for something that we know is coming,” Brett Johnson, the district’s chief financial officer, told the board.

District staff told the school board that Aurora Public Schools initially didn’t have many charter schools, and so provided many services at no charge. But now that more charters have opened in the district and as more are expected to come, a recent evaluation has helped the district come up with updated fees.

Currently, charter schools in Aurora pay a flat fee of $12,000, plus additional fees that add up to roughly $750 per student. The district is proposing to do away with the flat fee and add almost $200 per student in additional fees, bringing the total to $949. Some schools will save money and others will pay more, depending on how many students they have.

The increased fees mean the district will recoup some of the money they would otherwise have to hand over to charter schools, but for charter schools, the deal still means more funding.

Aurora currently gives charter schools about $3.05 million a year. Under the new law, the district expects its charter school allocation would be $6.54 million. The net increase in what the district spends on charter schools, after the increased fees, would be $2.5 million.

Board members supported the plan, questioning why the district had been “undercharging” charter schools in the first place.

“Certain services were done in-kind just because we had a smaller number of schools,” said Mackenzie Stauffer, the district’s charter school coordinator.

The services the district provides to charter schools can include administering or having a monitor for assessments, or helping schools evaluate a student who might be gifted.

The Aurora district created an office of autonomous schools in 2016. The office includes one staff member who just works with charter schools and whose position is funded by the required fees charged to all Aurora charter schools.

That department has created a new review process for charter school applications and a new process for charter school renewals, among other work.

“What we’re trying to do is make sure that the fee schedule moving forward can support the growth of charter schools, which we already know is happening,” Stauffer said.

Dan Schaller, director of governmental affairs for the Colorado League of Charter Schools, said he was not aware of other districts looking at similar deals and questioned the pairing of both sharing and charging charters money.

“My question would be why now?” Schaller said. “Given the whole debate and intent about equalizing funding, why would they be trying to do anything to circumvent it?”

Kathryn Mullins, the founder and executive director of Vega Collegiate Academy, said she learned about the proposal earlier this month at a meeting with charter school leaders, and said most were in support.

“For us personally, it makes sense,” Mullins said.