Student Voices

Meet the three students trying to reshape Aurora Central High

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Aurora Central High School students Juan Carbajal, Matthew Bouchey and Savion Harris helped craft a plan to reboot the school.

AURORA — If you had asked Aurora Central High School students Juan Carbajal, Matthew Bouchey and Savion Harris six months ago if they would play an integral part in saving one of Colorado’s most troubled high schools, they would have laughed.

“I never thought the school would change,” said Bouchey, a sophomore. “I thought I’d go through all four years doing the same thing, just with different classes and different teachers.”

But today, the three students can speak about the intricacies of school design and education policies like the most entrenched edu-wonk. That’s because the trio has helped a team of teachers, parents and administrators reconceive what Aurora Central could look like next year.

Their school is one of about 150 Colorado schools at risk of state sanctions if student test results and graduation rates don’t increase in the coming years. The Aurora school district is also at risk of losing its accreditation with the state.

As a last-ditch effort, five schools in the Original Aurora neighborhood are being redesigned under a 2008 state law that gives schools certain freedoms to chart their own paths.

The first drafts of those plans were released last week.

Chalkbeat spoke with the Aurora Central students about their new principal, their role on the design team and what they hope to see change. They also shared their startling discovery that Aurora Central is not alone in its improvement efforts. The students said they had no idea that work being done at Aurora Central was similar to efforts playing out at schools across the country.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What’s this school year been like?

Juan: I definitely see changes around here. As a freshman, we had a different principal. Things weren’t so well. Kids were ditching a lot. Everyone was always getting into fights. And we had a really bad truancy rate. My sophomore and junior year, we got another principal, (Mark Roberts). A lot of people who I saw getting into fights and ditching and just bad troublemakers, you saw them kind of go away. Dr. Roberts got rid of some of those people at Aurora Central. And he started to focus on building community with us. This year as a senior, I’ve seen our new principal Mr. (Gerardo) De La Garza do that as well.

Now, having the site and design team active, we’ve been trying to involve the community. We’re trying to get everyone in the community to do their part to help Aurora Central get out of where we are right now.

How much time have you spent on the design team?

Matthew: I can start off by saying, a lot. I never kept count. We met every Tuesday from 3:45 to 5:15. Then we had all-day meetings too. That’s usually the really big drive when we get a lot done.

Do you accept the ‘failing’ label adults at the state Department of Education have given Aurora Central?

Matthew: I disagree wholeheartedly. Ever since I was a baby, all I can remember is Aurora Central bringing in kids who haven’t had an education from places like third-world countries, other places where the education system isn’t as good as ours. Other schools will reject those students for not being smart enough. Aurora Central is one of the few schools to bring them in and give them an education. By that standard, I think Aurora Central is a better school that most. Sure, Central has its problems. A lot of kids ditch class. A lot of students are fighting. But that’s because no one believes in us. No one has offered to help us or do anything for us.

Students at Aurora Central High School work on an assignment during class during the spring of 2015.
PHOTO: Nic Garcia
Students at Aurora Central High School work on an assignment during class during the spring of 2015.

Do your teachers believe in you?

Savion: A lot of them do. But I think we’re biased. I’m not saying this is in a prideful way, but you know, we’re high achievers. I don’t think that’s the same for other students. You know in every school there is that group of teachers who are bad. And they don’t care. But I think that if we’re going to classify ourselves as a family, we have to communicate that to all students, not just AP honor students.

What was the most interesting thing you learned about school design from this process? Did you know how complicated it was to design a school?

(All three laugh and groan.)
Matthew: It was really nice looking at all these different schools across the country — across the world, really — that are in the same situation we are. It’s nice to see we’re not alone. There are so many schools that are like us that are trying to turn around that rep that they have and all these different ways they’ve done it are so outside the box. It was crazy.
Juan: We’ve been researching a lot of these different schools. Sometimes our people would contact the school administrators there and they’d ask, “How did you become so successful? How did you turn it around? How did you get to that goal of everyone graduating on time?”

You mentioned that you were shocked to learn how many schools are in a similar situation as Aurora Central. Did you think Aurora Central was alone?

Juan: Yeah, in all honesty. Because everyone around you is saying “Aurora Central. Aurora Central. Aurora Central.”
Savion: That’s the way the data makes it look. Data makes it look like you’re by yourself, you’re only doing this alone. But I realized there are other schools that have problems just like we do. But some of it is not revealed as much.

What else shocked you?

Savion: One thing that really shocked me was that teachers weren’t really being supported. Teachers didn’t feel like they had strong leadership behind them, that backbone that would push them to push the students.
Matthew: For something like this to work it has to be coming from both sides. It can’t just be the students trying to get this done and the teachers separately trying to get it done. We have to work together. I always found it fascinating that so many people at Central didn’t like Central. Even the students in Central thought Central was a bad school. And then we started this design committee and they’re like, “Hey, we’re trying to do something now. We’re trying to fix the school.”

What do you hope this school looks like a year from now?

Matthew: Next year, I really hope the students at Central are more involved than they are now. I really want the populace to accept that we all come from different households, that we all come from less fortunate households, but that you can overcome that to become a better person and to have more life experiences than someone who goes to a private school like Regis or some rich, more affluent school because you tried harder and you had to go through more stuff.

I’m hoping it’s more one-on-one for you to really get to know your teachers and your classmates. We’re hoping to have smaller class sizes and different periods that are specifically designed for you to build relationships with the staff and community. I think it will make a difference because our main goal, besides turning around grades, is to improve the school’s culture, to really have each others’ back.

Savion: I hope classrooms are more mixed — not allowing honor students just to be with honor students, normal students just being with normal students — but have that mixture so they can build that relationship student-to-student. Right now there is a vibe that I can only be with people based on my capabilities. You know, I can only be associated with you, or marked as gifted, if I’m in a certain class.

One other major change I’d like to see is the breaking of the chain of indifference. It means students don’t just come to school to take up space but to actually strive. The first day, if I were an administrator, I’d make sure to know my students. I’d make sure when they walk through the door, they’d know success is the only thing they need to strive for.

Were there any ideas that you thought would be really awesome that didn’t make it into the final draft?

Savion: Bringing back home-ec and other life skills classes. I was so gung-ho about that. I was like, “Oh my gosh, what if we do this again?” I think it would help with our chronic absenteeism.

Do you think the plan is enough to support teachers and to spur more learning by students? Come next fall, will there be a real desire by both students and adults to be at this school? To do school?

Juan: By next fall, it probably won’t. It’s going to take time. But I can tell you it’s a start. We will achieve those results.
Matthew: It’s sort of like a car at a stoplight. Once the light turns green, we’re not going to be going fast. But we’ll be accelerating and we don’t plan on stopping.

Aurora Public Schools board members Mary Lewis, Cathy Wildman, and JulieMarie Shepherd in 2015.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Aurora Public Schools board members Mary Lewis, Cathy Wildman, and JulieMarie Shepherd in 2015.

What do you want the adults on the local school board and the ones in Denver on the State Board of Education who must approve the plan to know about it?

Matthew: They need to know what Central is like now. In a perfect world, I’d like everyone to spend a week teaching a class, being the dean, doing something at Central to really get a feel for it before they decide what’s happening.

Is it acceptable for some schools to not do as well as others because of the students who walk through the door?

Matthew: It depends on what you mean by “do well.” When it comes to having higher test scores, I say there are always going to be schools that are higher and some schools that are lower because some schools will have more resources. But just having fewer resources shouldn’t stop a school from being better.
Savion: The thing is that we jump to conclusions based on our environment and where we are. I think what makes a school better or raises the caliber is its character. I don’t have to go to Cherry Creek to do well. I have to change my mindset.

With this plan, I hope we not only achieve academic standards, but relationship standards. Instead of students feeling like prisoners inside schools, how about administrators walk out and engage with students at lunch?

Is that how students feel right now?

Savion: The police are always roaming around here. Of course they want to ensure our safety but when a student is getting in trouble they shouldn’t be meeting handcuffs. They should be able to talk things out and address the situation.

If we’re going to be real, we have to think about those things. It’s not just about academics. Yeah, we have to increase our tests scores. But at the end of the day, we have to have relationships. It all has to tie into relationship building. Do you want students here to keep a bench warm or do you actually care about them? Because if you have half your population missing, something must be going on.

Who’s at fault for students not being at Aurora Central?

Savion: I think some things start at home. And sometimes students have to act like their own parent because parents are pulled in different directions putting food on the table. If you don’t have a good support system at home, then tomorrow is not promised that you’ll be at school learning.

Is there anything the adults at Aurora Central can do to help?

Juan: I think the adults need to get one-on-one with the students’ families. It has to be the student, the teacher and the parents. It has to be those three.
Savion: Of course it’s important to understand both sides. What adults can do is be that adult in one’s face: What can I do? Do you need a ride home? Do you need help with your siblings? If you don’t have breakfast, I will give you something to eat. Students should not feel every time they walk into the building that they will just see adults in their offices. If there is something adults can do it’s leave their offices. Let the community know your face. Let them know your child can feel secure.

Is that asking too much of the school?

Matthew: Desperate times call for desperate measures. We’re in a pretty bad situation. We need to ask for a lot. And I think it will be easier once we get more staff.

Savion, you were shocked that teachers didn’t feel supported. What supports do you hope they have next year?

Matthew: As it stands right now, I think we might be asking teachers for more than they can physically do, asking teachers to build relationships with students and go to their houses and learn about their families. That’s a lot to ask of a teacher.
Savion: Ideally, this plan is supposed to support teachers. But if teachers aren’t being provided the right information, ABC to XYZ, the teachers won’t support this plan and this plan won’t support them.

There’s a fear in the atmosphere about one-year contracts. (Part of the plan calls for teachers to work on a year-to-year basis.) That creates fear. It’s more of a fear tactic than saying to teachers, “go on and do your job.”

Aurora Central science teacher Tony Bullock prepped his students for an exam earlier this spring.
Aurora Central science teacher Tony Bullock prepped his students for an exam in 2015.

How does that transfer to the classroom?

Matthew: It can go both ways: Some will do the best they can because they’re afraid to lose their job and they want to impress the principal. It can also mean they’re looking for another job in other places where it’s more secure.
Juan: And they start slacking a lot more because they figure they’re going to lose their job anyway.
Matthew: And then you lose the teachers. And you lose the relationships they built with the students and it continues the cycle that we’ve had that’s been failing.
Savion: Give teachers the right to not feel scared.

Do you think there are some teachers who should be fired? I think there are people who imagine some teachers are here only to collect a paycheck and a pension and they’re not doing any service to you students.

Savion: If you just want to collect a paycheck, teaching isn’t for you. There are some teachers who need to go. They’ll come from different schools and it’s a culture shock. Some teachers can’t handle the pressure. They want a laid-back leadership. But sometimes you need that push. The push is only going to make you better. Sometimes I feel like this school has been run on leniency.

Do you feel the plan is still fuzzy?

Savion: It’s fuzzy to all of us.
Matthew: We’ve been working on this for a couple of months. I’m really happy we’ve come as far as we have. But there is still a lot of work to go.

terms of the deal

Aurora school board approves contract for district’s first DSST campus

Students at a campus of DSST, a charter network that is a big piece of Denver's "portfolio" approach to school management. (Denver Post file)

The Aurora school board on Tuesday night — in its last vote before new board members are sworn in — approved a contract with DSST Public Schools for the charter network’s first school outside of Denver.

The contract spells out enrollment and performance expectations, and upon request from Aurora school board members, ensures DSST will have representation from an Aurora resident on their own network governing board.

In June, the board approved DSST’s application to open four schools — two middle and two high schools — starting with one of each in the fall of 2019. The contract approved Tuesday is only for the first campus of a middle and high school.

During public comment, teachers, some parents and union leaders spoke to the board, as they have in past meetings, speaking against the DSST contract.

Among the speakers Tuesday was Debbie Gerkin, one of the newly elected school board members. Gerkin cited concerns with the plan to allow DSST to hire teachers who don’t yet have certifications, echoing a common criticism of charter schools.

“I appreciate there’s been so much hard work put into the DSST contact,” Gerkin said. “I ask that we continue to think about this.”

Board member Cathy Wildman asked the board if they would consider delaying the vote until the new board members are seated at the end of the month. A majority of current board members said they would not support a delay, noting they’ve spent more than a year working on learning about the DSST application and contract.

The school board first discussed the contract details at a meeting in October. At that time, board members asked district staff to go back to discussions with DSST to suggest that they commit to having someone from Aurora on their board of directors.

School board members asked questions about the details of the enrollment process such as whether there would be a preference for siblings, how student vacancies would be filled and whether the guidelines would really make the school demographics integrated.

According to the contract, DSST will give students in the surrounding neighborhoods, those served by elementary schools Rocky Mountain Prep, Paris, Crawford and Montview, first preference for half of the school’s open seats.

The remaining half will first go to any other Aurora students, but if seats are still available after that, students outside the district may enroll.

Enrollment numbers discussed in a separate presentation at the October board meeting show that the target area for the school, in northwest Aurora, is also the area with the largest declining enrollment. Schools in those neighborhoods have been near capacity, but not overcrowded like other schools in the district.

DSST will have a cap of enrolling no more than 450 students. An enrollment cap for charter schools in Aurora is standard, said Lamont Browne, the director of autonomous schools. In the first year, since the school will start with just sixth graders, the school anticipates enrolling 150 students. By April 1, DSST leaders must show the district that they’ve already enrolled at least 75 of those students.

A large section of the DSST contract spells out the district and school’s responsibilities in serving any students with special needs that may want to enroll at DSST.

The contract also includes a section that gives the district a right to close the school or deny a charter renewal if DSST earns a priority improvement rating from the state and doesn’t improve it after one year.

Recent contracts the Aurora school board approved for other charter schools also have requirements for performance, but not as stringent. The contract for The Academy of Advanced Learning, for instance, requires that school to improve after one year of earning a turnaround rating from the state. The turnaround rating is the lowest a school can get.

DSST has similar performance requirements in its contracts with Denver Public Schools allowing for a nonrenewal of a contract if a school has low ratings, but none of the Denver DSST schools have dropped to the lowest two categories of ratings. DSST schools, in fact, consistently are some of the state’s highest performing on state tests.

What the contract still doesn’t detail is a possible new name for Aurora’s DSST schools (the school originally was called the Denver School of Science and Technology) or how the district and the charter will split the cost of the building.

When Superintendent Rico Munn invited DSST to apply to open a school in Aurora, he offered to pay for half the cost of a new building for the charter school.

The bond voters approved in 2016 included money to pay for a new building for the charter school. The contract reiterates earlier commitments that both the district and the charter network must identify the money for a building by March 30.

A contract for the second 6-12 campus would be negotiated at a later time if the charter school meets performance requirements to move forward with opening the third and fourth schools.

Looking ahead

Union-backed candidates prevail in Aurora — and all sides downplay prospect of big immediate change

Union President Bruce Wilcox, far left, addressing four school board candidates: Debbie Gerkin, Kevin Cox, Kyla Armstrong-Romero and Marques Ivey, as they awaited election results Tuesday. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

One day after school board candidates backed by the teachers union swept into power in Aurora, the district superintendent and leaders of charter schools he recruited downplayed potential conflicts and committed to working with the new members.

Union leaders made similar comments Wednesday, expressing optimism that the newly elected members and Superintendent Rico Munn will forge a fruitful relationship.

The four candidates who will make up a majority on the seven-member school board have been critical of charter schools in interviews with Chalkbeat and candidate questionnaires. But in public comments, including during campaign forums, several of the candidates expressed openness to working with some charter schools depending on the circumstances.

That has left some uncertainty about what the election might mean for charter schools, which are a key piece of Munn’s recent reform efforts in Aurora, and the district’s strategies overall.

The newly elected school board members emphasized Tuesday they want to work with the existing leadership and aren’t planning major changes immediately.

Munn told Chalkbeat on Wednesday he needs to hear from the new board before contemplating any shifts to district priorities.

“In our reform strategy we’ve laid out at least nine different strategies that we’ve been implementing across different schools,” Munn said. “Our current board, and I’m sure our new board, may not like every single one of those. But that’s just an ongoing conversation we have to have.”

Put on notice by state education officials in 2010 for low performance, Aurora Public Schools had little choice but to embark on reforms to better serve its diverse population, which has large numbers of black and Latino students, and young refugees fleeing strife around the world.

Munn, hired in 2013, has overseen an approach the district calls “disruptive innovation.” Along with recruiting high-performing charters to the district, Aurora has adopted a new system for hiring meant to strengthen its principal corps, given schools more control over budgets and created an “innovation zone” providing schools within it greater freedom to experiment.

The district’s efforts have attracted interest from private foundations, education reform groups — and a gradually greater investment of attention and money in school board races, a trend that’s nearly a decade old in neighboring Denver.

Two years ago, reform groups from the left and right and a more engaged teachers union sought to influence the Aurora election. The result was split — two incumbents prevailed, and one of two conservative-backed reform candidates won.

Most of this year’s investment from the reform side came from an independent expenditure committee tied to Democrats For Education Reform. The reform community’s two preferred candidates —Miguel In Suk Lovato and Gail Pough — finished fifth and sixth in the race for the four seats. As of the last big campaign finance report deadline, a committee bankrolled by the teachers union had spent even more to help the union-endorsed slate, billed “Aurora’s A-Team.”

Union leadership and the board candidates on the winning slate have expressed concerns about Aurora Public Schools’ decision to close a struggling school and replace it with a charter school, Rocky Mountain Prep. Also coming in for their criticism: Munn’s invitation to DSST, a high performing charter network, to open in Aurora, and his offer to pay for half the cost of a new building.

The DSST deal is expected to be done after the current board votes on the final contract on Nov. 14 — their last meeting before the new board is sworn in.

Bill Kurtz, the CEO of DSST, said Wednesday the charter school network doesn’t have any concerns about working with board members elected as a union-backed slate.

“We’re excited to meet the new school board in Aurora, and excited about our work in Aurora,” Kurtz said. “Like any school board, we will work hard to start to build a strong relationship with the new board to collaborate so we can best serve students in Aurora … Our view of working with the school board in Aurora is no different today than it was yesterday.”

James Cryan, CEO of Rocky Mountain Prep, voiced a similar sentiment.

“I don’t have any concerns at this point,” Cryan said. “We’re proud to be a part of that community.”

Others who support some of Munn’s strategies are urging patience. Tyler Sandberg, a co-founder and senior policy adviser at Ready Colorado, a conservative education reform nonprofit that also invested in the race, said education reform policy discussions are in the early stages in Aurora.

“Charters are only just beginning to demonstrate to the community the quality they can bring,” Sandberg said. “I’m hopeful that the new board members are going to go to the community and realize how empowering some of these charter schools have been for these students. I’m hopeful schools like Rocky Mountain Prep and DSST are going to be able to make a pretty good impression.”

Sandberg also said that reform groups were at a disadvantage against unions which have “built in ground game and funding structure.”

The state teachers union, Colorado Education Association, invested heavily in Aurora after new leadership at the local level began to highlight the concerns of educators including the charter conversion and the DSST invitation, union officials say.

“The community didn’t want to become Denver East,” said Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, a reference to the charter-friendly district next door. “They want to create their own vision of their quality public schools and they want a healthy relationship with the school district, board of education and community.”

Munn has repeatedly expressed a similar message — that Aurora’s school improvement strategies are not a carbon copy of Denver’s and that they are tailored to Aurora’s needs.

Aurora showed enough improvement to pull itself off the state’s watch list for persistent low performance, sparing itself from a state-sanctioned improvement plan. Outside groups, however, including education reform-friendly groups, have complained that the district isn’t doing nearly enough, citing disturbingly low academic proficiency and other troubling statistics.

Although union members and supporters had plenty to celebrate after Tuesday’s election, not all of organizers’ goals were accomplished. Vicky McRoberts, a former union leader who helped work on the Aurora campaign for the teachers union, said Tuesday night that ambitious goals to engage teachers in the campaign fell short.

But she said volunteers who did help campaign were successful in connecting with voters on issues polls showed they cared about — such as increasing career and technical opportunities for students.

Bruce Wilcox, president of the Aurora teacher’s union, said Wednesday that teachers from outside Aurora helped the campaign, as well.

“We also had more teachers than in the past from our own district,” Wilcox said. “A lot of our teachers did more that one event. I think teachers here in the district recognized that this was an important election.”

Wilcox said the union can’t control what the slate of new board members will do, but said teachers and the union just wanted more collaboration with the district, and to feel that their opinion will be heard.

“I don’t anticipate this board to make any sweeping changes,” Wilcox said. “I’m hoping this board can establish a relationship with Mr. Munn and move forward. We’re at a great crossroads. Our long range plans have come to an end. What better way to start that work moving forward.”