parent voice

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

Students at Rangeview High School work during an electronics class. (File photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

When a student at Aurora’s Rangeview High School was asked by a police officer last year to take a hair pick out of her Afro because it could be considered a weapon, her mom went to the school to voice concerns about the inequity of banning the wide-toothed combs.

“I tried to educate them,” said Katia Campbell. “There are other things that students wear that could be used as a weapon, but by targeting this item, you are targeting African-American students.”

Christy Hartford, the assistant principal at Rangeview, where about 21.6 percent of students are black, got to thinking.

“That really caused me to look at that and ask how can we use our parents to get feedback on the different practices at our school,” Hartford said.

So, last fall, Hartford recruited Campbell and other black parents to be part of a new group called the African American Parent Committee.

Once a month, seven parents get together and visit three or four classrooms. Parents observe how students are or aren’t engaging with the teacher’s lessons. Later, they sit down with Hartford and some teachers, and provide feedback on what they see. The student paper, the Rangeview Raider Review, first reported on the program.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said Tomeka Speller, a group member and mother of two Rangeview students. “If they looked or appeared comfortable; how they interacted with the environment; the temperature of the room; if the teacher had control of their classroom.”

Although Hartford considers it an experiment, she said it’s already generating good ideas and some uncomfortable, but necessary, conversations.

“It’s been really positive,” Hartford said. “Parents are picking up on things maybe I didn’t pick up on.”

A teacher speaks with parents of the African American Parent Committee. (Photo courtesy of Daniel Campbell, Rangeview Raider Review)

The ultimate goal, she said, is to help close large gaps in the achievement of black students and white students at Rangeview, by getting more ideas as to how to help students.

Hartford said she noticed the large achievement gap when planning last summer for her first year at the school, and knew she wanted to try to narrow it. The gap between the percent of black students and the percent of white students who met expectations on state tests was 18 percentage points.

Hartford said black students at Rangeview are the second-to-lowest performing group and are also the most overrepresented group among those who are disciplined.

As parents observe the classrooms, Hartford provides a list of features to watch for, including students’ attitudes in class and their understanding of the lessons.

In general, Hartford said throughout the year, the majority of parents are noticing that students are collaborating in class and are voicing their opinions. But parents have told Hartford that they notice not enough teachers provide examples during class that are relatable for students of color.

Hartford said that as she has shared feedback with teachers, she has started seeing some incorporating the advice into the way they teach — especially the part about trying to make content more relevant with real-world examples.

Parents say they’re getting something out of it too.

“I just thought this was an awesome and unique experience to be able to sit in,” parent Kyle Speller, another group member, said.

Parents said they’ve learned more about the school’s programs and needs that aren’t necessarily tied to teachers.

“The thing that I saw that needed the most improvement, in my opinion, is funding,” Speller said. “I would love to see more resources provided to the students in APS. There are different times when they would have to share textbooks. I felt that was a little bit disappointing.”

Campbell, who first raised issues about the hair pick ban (which has now been rescinded), said she learned that it’s good to be involved.

“I’m glad that I stepped up to have this conversation,” Campbell said. “I’ve learned that they listen to parents.”

Next year, Hartford said she wants to continue the parent group, but also wants to start a student group to give her “a pulse” on what they’re seeing and experiencing too.

“That’s what’s missing now,” Hartford said. “It’s the student voice.”

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.”