Aurora summer program extends the year for some

In teacher Erin Autobee’s classroom at Aurora’s Jewell Elementary, 23 soon-to-be-third-graders hunched over their spelling test papers carefully writing out words like “hour,” “house” and “however.”

Rising second-graders at Aurora's Jewell Elementary take a spelling test during Fifth Block.
Rising second-graders at Aurora’s Jewell Elementary take a spelling test during Fifth Block.

It was just after lunch on a rainy Wednesday. A colorful row of backpacks hung against the wall and the daily schedule, printed neatly on a whiteboard, listed breakfast and lunch times, math and literacy blocks, three recesses, and finally bus departure at 3:12 p.m.

Pretty typical, except that outside this classroom, the hallways were dark and quiet. Most of Jewell’s students had begun their summer vacations the previous Friday.

The children in Autobee’s classroom, along with nearly 2,900 other students across the district, were participating in Fifth Block, an intensive month-long summer school program that started four days after the official last day of school.

Launched in 2008, the free, voluntary program targets rising first-graders to 10th-graders who struggle in math and literacy but have shown some growth during the previous year. They are not the lowest performers; most would fall into the second lowest tier if students were divided into four tiers based on academic performance.

At a time when national conversations about increasing instructional time are gaining momentum, Fifth Block provides a small-scale example of what an extended school year might look like and what kind of impact it could have.

While most students get about 10 weeks of summer vacation, Fifth Block participants get about five, most of that during July. Administrators say data shows that kids who participate demonstrate more academic growth than kids who don’t, particularly in math and writing.

The origin of Fifth Block

Fifth Block came to life during the tenure of Superintendent John Barry, who will leave the district at the end of June after seven years at the helm.

He and other administrators wanted the new summer program to focus on kids who scored “partially proficient” on state tests and other assessments because those students didn’t receive the extra attention or small-group instruction that the lowest achievers receive during the school year.

“There was this group not receiving anything,” said Lisa Escarcega, the district’s chief accountability and research officer.

What they needed most, district leaders decided, was more time in front of an effective teacher. To make sure Fifth Block participants took advantage of the extra 23 days of instruction, administrators considered school-year attendance and behavior in deciding who to invite to the program. Overall, Fifth Block students have lower truancy and discipline referral rates than students districtwide.

For many students, Fifth Block is not a one-time intervention. In 2012, nearly one-third were participating for the second consecutive year and 10 percent for the third consecutive year.

Fifth Block students line up after lunch to go to a different classroom for the literacy portion of their day.
Fifth Block students line up after lunch to go to a different classroom for the literacy portion of their day.

“There will be some repeat students,” said Escarcega. “They need that extra time every single year.”

Aurora pays for Fifth Block, which costs about $1.5 million a year or $469 per student, primarily with funds from a 2008 mill levy. In years past, Title 1 funding has made extra slots available at some schools, but this year sequestration forced the district to reduce the number of spots by about 500.

More structure, more familiarity

Although a couple elementary schools offer science as part of Fifth Block, most schools focus exclusively on math, reading and writing. There are no specials, electives or field trips.

Misty Louihis, who teaches math to Fifth Block students at Jewell, said the district’s previous version of summer school was less structured, included field trips and had more of an enrichment focus. With Fifth Block, she said teachers get more direction on content, pacing and goals than before.

“It’s more effective, definitely,” she said.

Another hallmark of Fifth Block is that most students attend classes at their home schools with teachers they already know or at least have seen around the building. The only exceptions to that are students going into sixth and ninth grades, who attend Fifth Block at the middle and high schools they will attend in the fall.

The home school format is meant to make students comfortable and save teachers from having to get to know a completely new set of kids in a short time frame. The continuity that can result is evident in the experience of eight-year-old Ava Carballo, who will enter third grade at Jewell in the fall. She had Louihis for Fifth Block last summer, then for second grade. She now has Louihis for the math portion of Fifth Block and will have her again when Louihis “loops” to third grade in the fall.

Carballo, who is in Fifth block with about eight of her second-grade classmates, said she was happy to be invited to the program again.

“It’s fun to go to Fifth Block to learn stuff. It helps you be ready for your next grade.”

Assessing the impact

girls standing in classroom
Girls in Fifth Block gather their belongings after their morning math session.

Overall, Fifth Block seems to make a difference for most participants, accelerating their academic gains and reducing “summer slide.” According to 2012 state test scores, Fifth Block students in six of seven grade levels demonstrated growth higher than the state median in writing. In math the same was true for students in five of seven grade levels and in reading for four of seven grade levels.

“We’ve been happy we’re improving each year,” said Escarcega.

Aside from the quantitative data, surveys of teachers, principals and parents indicate widespread satisfaction with the program. Last year, 86 percent of principals and parents and 92 percent of teachers reported that Fifth Block was academically beneficial for their students.

A number of studies confirm the connection between increased learning time and increased academic achievement and policy-makers have emphasized the potential of extended learning models for low income children. In addition to entering school with lower skills, they often lack access to out-of-school enrichment activities available to their more affluent peers.

“School is the only vehicle for them to accelerate,” said Jennifer Davis, president of the National Center on Time and Learning.

It’s no surprise then that many schools with extended school days or years enroll large numbers of high-needs students.  The center’s 2012 “Mapping the Field” report found that 72 percent of 1,002 “expanded-time” schools were in urban areas and 58 percent serve populations where 75 percent or more students are eligible for free and reduced-price meals.

Among Aurora’s 36,000 students, about 69 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price meals and among Fifth Block participants, the proportion is 85 percent. In addition, 55 percent of Fifth Block participants are English Language Learners, compared to 38 percent districtwide.

Extended school year for all?

While Fifth Block lengthens the school year for only a fraction of Aurora students, it has prompted conversations about the possibility of someday extending the year for all students.

“It blends into the current conversations about extended learning,” said Deputy Superintendent William Stuart. “From a cultural standpoint, it’s established…this notion that the last day of school is not really the last day of school.”

Davis said increasingly there is less resistance from parents and the general public to extended learning options such as a longer school year.

“We’re going to see more and more experimentation,” she said. “What’s really starting to emerge is that the American school schedule hasn’t modernized as it needs to.”

That said, schools that have lengthened their school day far outnumber those that have extended their school year. The center’s Mapping the Field report found that only 21 percent of expanded-time schools had school years at least 10 days longer than surrounding schools. On average, expanded-time schools, a majority of which are charter schools, had 184-day school years, not dramatically different from the traditional 180-day calendar used in many districts.

In Aurora, some of the logistical challenges that can make an extended school year difficult, have already been addressed. For example, all district schools are air-conditioned, alleviating concerns about students sweating it out in hot, stuffy classrooms. In addition, when Fifth Block was devised, the school calendar was adjusted so school starts in early August and ends in late May, thus allowing Fifth Block to unfold without veering into the prime vacation month of July.

Still, money remains a huge stumbling block, even for the modestly-sized Fifth Block. Administrators say there are more “partially proficient” students who could benefit, but limited funding ties their hands.

Louihis said while she wishes there were another 25 slots at her school to go with the 50 they have now, she isn’t sure an extended year for all students is the way to go.

“The best part of Fifth Block is we really have that filter of who comes,” she said, noting that most students are responsible, self-directed and want to be there. “The change of population is nice because we can get more done.”

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.