next steps

College center, first of its kind in Aurora, puts students on path for life after high school

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Hinkley College Center director Jazmin Lopez speaks with senior Moise Kombo in January.

AURORA — Moise Kombo calls it his “getaway spot.”

About once a week, the quiet young man with designs on becoming among the first in his family to attend college escapes to a first-floor room at Hinkley High School. There, he works on all the things expected of him if he is to accomplish a goal that’s proven elusive to many of his peers in Aurora Public Schools.

“I thought it was all about your ACT score,” said Kombo, a Hinkley senior who recently moved from Nebraska. “I never expected to have to write an essay or get a recommendation letter. It was all a surprise to me.”

The College Center at 2,100-student Hinkley High School, the first of its kind in Aurora Public Schools, is supposed to take away the element of surprise. The center is one-stop shop where students can zero in on possible career paths, learn what colleges on their wish list look for and master how to craft a winning scholarship essay.

Opened this fall, the center is one strategy that grew out of a $3.4 million state Department of Higher Education grant program aimed at improving Colorado’s relatively poor record of getting low-income students to college.

Other similar centers have opened or expanded throughout metro Denver through the initiative, which is supporting more than two-dozen districts, universities and nonprofits taking a range of approaches.

The center-based approach — where college is the only focus — comes as high-school counselors are being asked to do more and handle greater numbers of students.

The challenges are all the more daunting in APS, an inner suburban school district where student achievement and graduation rates have lagged behind other Front Range districts, at-risk students are plentiful and philanthropic dollars are scarce.

Inside the College Center

The College Center at Hinkley is run single-handedly by a woman who knows the position most of her students are in.

Student Voice | Read a Hinkley High School student’s essay that was written at the College Center here.

Jazmin Lopez graduated from Denver’s North High during a tumultuous school improvement effort and was an early benefactor of the Denver Scholarship Foundation’s Future Center, which served as inspiration for Hinkley’s.

“I was one of them,” said Lopez, the center director.

Today, Lopez works with about 300 juniors and seniors a week. While the center is a drop-in space with about a half-dozen computers, printers and scanners, Lopez also uses the space to host organized seminars for students she pulls from classes throughout the day.

Earlier this year, she held a seminar just for black students. And later this spring she’ll work with a group of students who have already been accepted to the University of Northern Colorado on how to register for classes and navigate the school’s bureaucracy.

Lopez also has hosted evening events for families that center around filling out college applications and financial aid forms. There will be twice as many next school year, she said.

Her goal: to have all Hinkley seniors apply to a two- or four-year college.

“I have no doubt we’ll reach it,” she said.

The state’s dilemma

By 2025, state officials wants 66 percent of all adults in the state to have some job certificate or degree. In order to reach that goal, the Department of Higher Education has set its eyes on getting more students of color to college or workforce training.

By one key measure, minority students lag behind in college enrollment. The most recent data available, from 2013, shows 41 percent of white Colorado high school graduates went to a state-run college. Meanwhile, only about 30 percent of Latino and black high school graduates when to a state-run school.

That gap between white and Latino widens when out of state colleges are taken into account.

“When we’re out in the field, the main reasons we’re hearing why students aren’t pursuing college is because they either don’t know about it or they don’t believe [it’s possible],” said Dawn Taylor Owens, executive director of College in Colorado, a program of CDHE.

She said more programs like Hinkley’s College Center are needed to explain all the after-high school options from certificate programs to associate’s degrees.

“It’s about talking to kids who might be afraid of the word ‘college’ and helping them realize there are so many options,” she said.

Counselor load

The school district’s high counselor to student ratio was one reason why  officials sought to open a college center.

For every 350 high school students, APS has one counselor. The National American School Counselor Association recommends one counselor for every 250 students.

“The caseload of our counselors were already high,” said Jay Grimm, executive director of the Aurora Public Schools Foundation, which runs the center. “With the work going on with keeping kids on track and getting them to graduation, we wanted to supplement that guidance and put an emphasis on what is possible after high school.”

Not only are counselors seeing more kids, but they’re being asked to do more than counselors have traditionally been asked to do, said Taylor Owens. Those tasks include managing student data and schedules, crisis situations and other wrap around services.

Corey Notestine, post-secondary coordinator for Colorado Springs School District 11, said college centers are becoming more common.

“Where funding is available, these programs are popping up,” said Notestine, who was named the 2015 School Counselor of the Year by the American School Counselor Association.

More than a number

Often, the journey to college ends before it starts for Aurora students. Only 40 percent of all APS high school graduates go on to a two-or four-year colleges, according to state data. That’s compared to 55 percent statewide.

“No one is saying you need to finish,” said Hinkley senior Joselin Rivera, who is a daily visitor to the College Center, as to why that number isn’t higher.

But that appears to be changing, Rivera said. The College Center helped her focus and refine her search for colleges and scholarships.

“You can go to Google and find things, but here, Ms. Lopez leads you in the right direction,” she said. “Ms. Lopez gave me the courage to apply [to Columbia University].”

As for Kombo, the Nebraska transplant, he’s considering Pickens or Emily Griffith technical colleges to become a trained mechanic. And at the advice of Lopez, he’s also considering the Metropolitan State University to earn a four-year degree in mechanical engineering.

He just hopes there is a similar resource like the first-floor center at Hinkley on the other side of summer.

“It took me a while to find this place,” he said. “But I’m glad I did.”

The following essay was written by Hinkely High School senior Joselin Rivera. She is a daily visitor to the College Center. She wants to be a writer and hopes to attend Columbia University in New York.

one-time money

Aurora school district has more money than expected this year

Jordan Crosby and her students in her kindergarten class at Crawford Elementary on February 17, 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Brent Lewis/The Denver Post)

The Aurora school district will have a slight influx of one-time money to spend on teacher pay and curriculum upgrades after seeing higher than expected increases in property tax revenue and accurately forecasting a decline in student enrollment.

The district received almost $9 million more in revenue than the $341.4 that was budgeted, and started the year with almost $11 million more than expected left over from last year.

The school board for Aurora Public Schools gave the budget changes initial approval at a board meeting Tuesday night.

Last year, when Aurora was reassessing its budget in January, officials found that they had to make mid-year cuts. This year’s mid-year changes, however, were good news, officials said, as the district finds itself with more money than they planned to have.

“In large part it’s because we hit our projections about enrollment,” Brett Johnson, the district’s chief financial officer, told the school board. “Because we hit it right on the dot, a lot of what we are going to discuss is good news.”

Aurora schools recorded an official student count this fall of 40,920 preschoolers through 12th graders. That’s down from 41,797 students counted last year.

It’s a drop that district officials were expecting this time.

The district also brought in more property tax revenues than expected.

Johnson said district officials based their projections for the current school year’s budget on a property tax increase of about 9 percent. But revenues from property values actually increased by almost twice that amount. Typically when districts get more money from local property taxes, their share of state money goes down, making it a wash, but because Aurora has mill levy overrides, it can take advantage of some of the increase.

Robin Molliconi, the administrative division supervisor in the Arapahoe County Assessor’s Office, said that while there has been new construction and development within the school district’s boundaries, most of the increased revenue is a result of higher assessed values of existing properties.

As budget officials in the district closed out last school year’s budget, they also found that there was more money left over than they expected. Johnson said district leaders believe that may have been a result of district staff spending more cautiously at the end of last year when officials were expecting big budget cuts.

If the school board gives the budget amendments final approval at their next board meeting, the district will use $5 million of the unexpected dollars to upgrade curriculum, $3.1 million to give teachers a pay raise that the district had previously agreed to with the union, and $1.8 million to launch a pilot to try to better fill hard-to-staff positions.

Johnson said some of the money will also go to the district’s reserve account that had been spent down in previous years when enrollment had dropped much more than expected.

Clarification: More information was added to the story to explain that Aurora has mill levy overrides.

year in review

Aurora school district saw accountability, charter and budget changes in 2017

First graders eat their lunch at Laredo Elementary School in Aurora. (Photo by Seth McConnell/The Denver Post)

Reform work in Aurora schools was on the fast track in 2017.

In the spring, Aurora Public Schools officials defended their work to improve the district’s lowest performing school, Aurora Central High School, in front of the State Board of Education. The school, having had multiple years of low performance, was one of the first to face sanctions for poor performance. But after the district made their case, the state board approved a plan that allows the district to continue rolling out the school’s innovation plan with a deadline of demonstrating improvements within two years.

The district, meanwhile, received good news this year: that it was no longer at risk of facing state sanctions itself after a rise in state ratings.

More recently, the district began looking at the next school, Paris Elementary, that could face the same fate as the high school, and is considering changes to lift that school’s achievement before the state intervenes.

That school, like Aurora Central, is part of the district’s innovation zone — a group of schools with more flexibility than traditional district-run schools. The zone was introduced in Aurora in 2015, but officials are still fine-tuning the work at those schools, including on their goals and budgets.

The district as a whole made many changes to their budget and school funding process in 2017. After a better-than-predicted state budget that was finalized in the spring, district leaders didn’t have to make all the cuts they were considering.

But in the process of scrutinizing the budget to find where they could make cuts, district officials decided to cut funding to six schools that operated under special plans created with the district’s teachers union.

The district is still closely watching enrollment numbers that continue to drop. Besides the impact on the budget, the changing enrollment picture prompted the district to consider a different kind of long-term plan for its buildings and future priorities.

Both the district’s reforms and budget discussions were big issues in this fall’s school board election, which saw a union-backed slate win four seats on the seven-member board.

The other big issue in the election was around the district’s work with charter schools. This summer, the Aurora school board approved the contracts for a new DSST charter school. The district is also considering consequences for charter schools that are low performing, and working with one charter to see if it can operate a center-based program for students with special needs.

Another effort that attracted attention this year was the district’s work to diversify its workforce, specifically principals.

Expect many more changes next year.