Remaking Aurora

Schools experiment with universal mental health screenings

In a sunny office at Sixth Avenue Elementary School in Aurora, an upbeat school psychologist named Shannon Kishel tossed out questions to four third- and fourth-grade boys sitting around a table: when a student hurts or teases another student, how do you stand up for the victim?

At first, the answers were fairly predictable. One after the other, the boys either said they’d tell the bullies to stop or go to a teacher for help.

As the discussion deepened, the contradictory realities of childhood emerged. A soft-spoken boy in a white polo shirt asked, “But what if the adult doesn’t believe you?”

It was a good question, Kishel said, and she encouraged him to dig for an answer. He did just that.

“I would get proof from someone else or I would make the bully admit it,” he said.

All the boys in Kishel’s office were cooperative and easy-going. Based on the session alone, it would be hard to see them as anything but average boys: one talking about soccer, another about his trampoline, one wearing a Broncos t-shirt, one asking if Kishel had any more bite-sized Twix bars when she handed out treats at the end.

But the students were all selected for Kishel’s weekly group based on the outcomes of a universal mental health screening, a process that identifies students who are at risk for problems ranging from aggression to social isolation. All four were rated “extremely elevated” for various characteristics that could mean trouble down the road.

Mental health issues affect many Colorado students, causing problems such as disruptive behavior, anxiety and absenteeism that can hinder academic success. These problems also impact teachers, making their jobs harder. According to a 2011 survey of educators and school mental health professionals by the Colorado School Safety Resource Center, 59 percent of respondents said they needed assistance with students’ mental health needs.

But formal mental health screenings —  the kind being piloted at Sixth Avenue, and five other district schools — are rare in Colorado and nationally.

Among large districts, Boston Public Schools is one of the few that conducts them. Experts praise universal screening both for casting a wide net and enabling early intervention. But the screenings also raise questions for school districts, ranging from how to pay for them to whether they have the ability to obtain services for all students the screenings identify.

Despite the obstacles, interest appears to be growing. The Center Consolidated district plans to launch a universal screening program next fall and other school health leaders have taken notice as well.

Karina Delaney, coordinated school health manager for Adams 12, said, “It’s definitely a conversation I’m planning to have with our district.”

In the wake of the recent Arapahoe High School shooting, it’s hard not contemplate how things might have turned out differently if Karl Pierson had gotten mental health services long before he was capable of pulling the trigger. But while acts of school violence are all too familiar in Colorado, they are hardly the only reason to teach kids social-emotional skills like how to join a playground game, resist peer pressure or resolve an argument.

By incorporating social-emotional skills into the school day, Aurora administrators are hoping that they can head off problems before they start, creating healthier, more productive classrooms and ultimately higher student achievement.

“I am passionate about prevention,” said Jessica O’Muireadhaigh, the Aurora special education consultant who spearheaded the district’s screening program.

Helayne Jones, president and CEO of the Legacy Foundation, said Aurora is a perfect example of a district where leaders see the link between good mental health and academic success.

“We really applaud their work,” she said. “Some districts don’t see the connection yet.”

The Legacy Foundation has been a leading advocate for mental health services in schools. In November, the foundation distributed to all Colorado districts its new School Behavioral Health Services Framework, which offers strategies and tools for providing mental health services in schools. This month, the foundation announced $5,000 grants for mental health initiatives to five districts, including Aurora and Center, both of which will use the money for universal screening.

Reaching all kids, focusing on some

Aurora began its “Social Emotional Learning Pilot” in early 2013 after top administrators asked O’Muireadhaigh to develop a program to address students’ social emotional health. In addition to the universal screening, the pilot includes weekly lessons on social-emotional topics for all students from the Caring School Communities curriculum. All told, the program costs $27,000 per school.

Resources on mental health and universal screening

Illinois, which has detailed social-emotional learning standards and benchmarks for every grade, was one of O’Muireadhaigh’s models as she crafted the pilot program. But she wanted to go a step further and add the screening.

“They aren’t as systemic as we are,” she said.

Aurora’s six pilot schools use a “two-gate” screening system that uses two respected  tools. Teachers use the first, called the SSBD, about six to eight weeks into the school year to rank the top three “externalizers” and top three “internalizers” in their classrooms. Externalizers are students who show defiance, aggression or temper tantrums, while internalizers show anxiety, depression or withdrawal.

Teachers then use the BASC-BESS instrument to determine whether the six students identified by the first screening are in the “average,” “elevated” or “extremely elevated” range for various social-emotional issues. Typically, one or two of the original six students fall into the “extremely elevated” category and are flagged to participate in small intervention groups with Kishel or a school social worker. .

O’Muireadhaigh said about 30 students participate in small groups at five of the pilot schools, including Sixth Avenue, Sable, Vaughn and Altura elementary schools as well as Boston K-8. Jamaica Child Development Center, the only preschool in the pilot program, is the exception. There, only a few three- and four-year-olds participate in a small group because there is a major emphasis on social-emotional skills for all children throughout the school day.

In February, the students who have been meeting weekly in small groups since the fall will be assessed to see if they have made progress on their social-emotional skills. Those who still have significant struggles will be placed in new groups that use a different, more explicit curriculum.

Of the four boys Kishel worked with on that recent afternoon, there was one she suspected might need to remain in a small group after the February assessment. Though he had made an effort to participate in the session, he struggled with his words, and mostly parroted answers that other students had already given.

Other screening methods

While universal screenings that use evidence-based tools are lauded for identifying students, particularly internalizers, who need extra support, there are other ways to identify students who are having social, emotional or behavioral difficulties. In many districts, teams that include administrators, counselors, psychologists, social workers, special education staff and teachers, meet weekly to compare notes and create plans for struggling students.

For example, in Denver, a pilot mental health expansion pulls together staff to design individual programs for at-risk students. The district or staff at the 39 participating schools scans attendance and disciplinary data to identify struggling students. School staff then meet to discuss what risk factors might be at play for the student and what interventions can be effective.

“The mental health expansion is looking at this subgroup and trying to find the root cause,” said Steve Nederveld, who manages the the district’s mental health division. Those root causes can include “depression, family conflict, gang involvement, juvenile justice involvement, bullying.”

The expansion is, in part, the district’s response to last year’ school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary.

“[Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg’s] response to Sandy Hook was making sure our kids get our social emotional supports rather than more police,” said Eldridge Greer, the director of the mental health and assessment program.

Greer thinks Denver’s approach could be ground-breaking.

“I think it has the potential to be a profound shift,” Greer said. “Before this, schools really operated on a 19th century model of I’ll wait for students to come into my office.” There wasn’t a “good connection between behavior and therapeutic interventions.”

He also hopes it will transform student and parent perceptions of the district.

“The district is responding in a way that is not punitive,” Greer said.

Plans in Center

The biggest mental health problem in the 617-student Center school district is depression, said Katrina Ruggles, a counselor for the district. Students also struggle with divisive family relationships, divorce, substance abuse and dating violence. Nearly 92 percent of students in Center qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

And although the district has a partnership with San Luis Valley Mental Health to provide services two days a week, Ruggles said it’s not enough.

“We have a high at-risk population so we have to provide a lot of services that other districts don’t have to provide.”

And so the district is going a step further to universal screenings, with plans to select a screening this spring, launch it K-12 next fall and pilot it for three years.

“We understand there’s a really fundamental connection between your behavioral health, your physical health and your academic health,” said

Ruggles said some students — elementary school boys with ADHD, for example — are easily flagged for evaluations or services, but she believes there’s a subset of students who don’t always attract much attention though they may need it.

“Sometimes there are kids that slide under the radar and we’re missing those kids,” she said.

Jumping the inevitable hurdles

Universal screenings may make perfect sense to mental health professionals, but many people have never heard of them. That can make securing parent permission a thorny problem for school districts. There also may be concerns about the validity of screening tools, that kids will be unfairly stigmatized, or that schools have no business evaluating mental health in the first place.

“Schools are very leery to do it,” said Barb Bieber, school psychology consultant at the Colorado Department of Education. “So we’re hoping that Aurora will have some good outcomes from their work.”

In Center, Ruggles expects it may be a challenge to get parents on board.

“We’re going to have to make sure that parents are really informed about what we’re doing so it doesn’t feel intrusive,” she said.

So far, Karmin Braun, a second-grade teacher at Sixth Avenue Elementary, said she hasn’t fielded any parent concerns about the program.

In fact, just the opposite. She described how one little boy who would “break down and cry very easily if you redirected him” has made immense progress since he joined a small group in the fall. At a recent parent-teacher conference, the boy’s parents remarked on his improvement and said they were impressed with the program. Aurora’s screening program requires signed parent permission slips only for students who are flagged for small groups.

O’Muireadhaigh said that while individual students will likely show significant social-emotional growth within one school year, it will take at least three to five years for the district to see a more global student achievement effect.

“We’re kind of in our infancy and we’re still collecting the data,” she said.

Research on the subject suggests that aggregate academic gains are likely. According to a 2011 meta-analysis of universal social-emotional programs in schools, researchers not only found that students’ social-emotional skills, attitudes and behavior improved, they cited an 11 percentile-point gain in student achievement.

Finding the money

Perhaps one of the biggest questions about universal screening is funding, and not just funding for the screening tools themselves and training so teachers know how to use them. Experts say that screenings must be accompanied by services for students who are identified or they’re not worth doing.

“Funding is always a big issue,” said Jones. “Where [schools] cut…is often in all those areas that support the affective and social-emotional needs of students.”

That may be part of the reason that 29 Colorado districts applied for just five mental health grant awards from the Legacy Foundation. While Aurora’s grant will help purchase more social emotional learning materials, O’Muireadhaigh said the pilot’s costs, including the addition of 1.6 employees, is currently covered by the general fund budget.

In Center, Ruggles also expects administrators will have to rely on their general fund to help implement and sustain the screening program. She echoed other educators in saying there’s not a lot of grant funding available for mental health.

“We try to find it where we can and piece it together.”

 Offering alternatives

During the recent small group session in Kishel’s office, it became clear that social-emotional skills don’t always come naturally.

After the four boys watched a short video in which a boy pushed a girl while waiting in line, a boy in a blue shirt next to Kishel condemned the pushing: “You can’t push a girl. You can’t even touch girls,” he said.

When Kishel asked if it’s okay to push boys, the student responded without missing a beat.

“Yeah, you can push boys.” Another student added, “If they’re messing with you.”

Kishel was unphased, but urged the boys to think about peaceful solutions using words instead of aggression. Although the boy in the blue shirt proposed fighting another time or two, the group came up with several creative (and sometimes unrealistic) solutions to bullying, from befriending the bully to making a bully who teased a student about his clothes wear the same thing as the victim.

After the boys returned to their classroom, Kishel and O’Muireadhaigh acknowledged that students often default to solutions that might make sense in the rest of their lives.

Still, O’Muireadhaigh said of the boy in the blue shirt, “At the most basic level, he heard an alternative.”

Feeling flexible

How five Aurora schools in an “innovation zone” are making budget decisions to meet their own needs

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Crawford Elementary School Principal Jenny Passchier observed a writing lesson in October 2015.

When Aurora Public Schools went looking for ways to save money earlier this year, one casualty was a district-wide contract for a service that provides a translator on the phone when one is not available in person.

The decision could have hurt Crawford Elementary School, where students speak about 35 languages and the service is used at least weekly— more at the start of the school year.

But Principal Jenny Passchier was not without options. As one of five schools that comprise Aurora Public Schools’ year-old innovation zone, Crawford has greater autonomy from district rules and budgeting decisions.

So when school resumed a couple of weeks ago, families at the five innovation zone schools got phone calls they could understand because leaders of the schools chose to keep paying for the translation and drop other district services to make up the difference.

“It’s very critical that we have some way to get ahold of our families,” Passchier said. “Especially in maybe more informal situations. We don’t always have translators that are readily available in person, so that was a critical piece that we needed to keep.”

That decision provides a window into what autonomy looks like in Aurora’s innovation zone, Superintendent Rico Munn’s biggest reform bet to date to lift achievement in a district with a challenging student population and poor academic track record.

With the innovation zone, Aurora officials are turning to a school model that other districts across the state and country have tried, with mixed results. Innovation status provides schools charter school-like autonomy, but the schools are operated by the district instead of independently.

The five schools in northwest Aurora started rolling out their innovation plans last school year.

Taking advantage of the state’s innovation law, APS officials created the zone to give schools greater flexibility from some state laws, union or district policies so principals could govern things like curriculum, hiring practices, school calendars and budgets in ways that might improve achievement at their schools.

Last year, in the first year of innovation status, district officials worked with principals of the five schools in the zone to figure out what district services they could do without, and what extra services they wanted to pay for with the money they might have instead.

Principals started by looking at what their school needed help with and then district officials worked with them to analyze how well the existing services worked.

In the case of the TeleLanguage service, district officials calculated that the average district school used the translation service for about 909 minutes, or about 15 hours, per school year. But each of the five schools in the innovation zone used the service for about 2,978 minutes per school year — about three times as often as the average district school.

After the analysis, the five schools decided to drop several services, including some from the district’s human resources department, and in exchange the schools were given about $500,000 extra in the 2017-18 budget.

How the money is being spent

  • Translation services, $14,000
  • Health Sciences Academy at Aurora Central, $30,000
  • College and career services, $30,000
  • Parent support budget for Student Engagement Advocate, $5,000
  • Talent acquisition and marketing budget, $40,000
  • Three full-time positions, $305,189
  • Individual school supports: Crawford, $20,000; Paris, $20,000; Boston K-8, $20,000; Aurora West, $30,000; Aurora Central, $36,000

“I led all five principals through the process of evaluating the needs of their schools,” said Lamont Browne, executive director of autonomous schools, including the innovation zone. “My approach was very much facilitating what ideas they had for who they were.”

As a zone, the five schools created three new positions with the extra $500,000. The schools hired a student engagement advocate to help communicate with families and improve student attendance (a position that would no longer exist at the district level); a director of instruction and leadership development; and a director of talent and acquisition to pick up some of the district HR department’s traditional duties.

The woman hired for that last role already has helped the five schools fill positions that still were open as school started.

Passchier described the budget redesign process as collaborative and said she spent a lot of time reflecting on her school’s needs.

“We were able to identify what are the zone-wide themes that we can support, but also what are unique things we need at the school level,” Browne said.

Each school made ia case for its own funding needs. For instance, Aurora Central High School hired an additional student engagement advocate that would be dedicated just to the 2,000-student high school. One of the staff person’s primary responsibilities: helping improve poor attendance.

Passchier said Crawford staff wanted to continue some reading work they’d done with a grant that was ending. The school is now using about $5,000 to continue work with a consultant the school found helpful in teaching students to read.

Officials say it’s too early to know how well the redesigned budget is working for the schools, but Passchier said she’s already seeing benefits two weeks into the school year.

The director of student engagement, who will work with the five schools to help them engage families and students with a goal of increasing attendance, already has been at Crawford several times, Passchier said.

Browne said that if principals find other district services they want to reconsider or analyze as the school year unfolds, the budget for the five schools may change.

Correction: This post has been updated to reflect that the innovation schools dropped use of just some of the services from the district’s human resources department.

On the right track

Aurora state test results mostly moving in positive direction

Students at Aurora's Boston K-8 school in spring 2015. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post).

Aurora Public Schools officials are optimistic after seeing their latest state test scores, a major factor in whether the district will pull itself off the state’s watchlist for chronic poor performance.

The number of eighth graders that met or exceeded expectations on English tests increased by more than the state average. The district’s lowest performing school, Aurora Central High School, nearly doubled the number of ninth graders meeting or exceeding expectations on their English tests.

Another Aurora school, William Smith High School, had the state’s fourth highest median growth percentile for English tests. That means that on PARCC English tests, those students showed improvements on average better than 89 percent of Colorado kids who started with a similar test score from the year before.

But the increases of how many Aurora third graders met expectations on English tests weren’t as big as the average increase across the state. The improvements also still leave the district with far fewer students proficient than in many nearby districts or compared to state averages.

“There’s evidence there that there has been some really hard work by our kids and our staff,” Superintendent Rico Munn said. “We’ve hit a mile marker in a marathon. But we fully recognize we have a lot of work left to do.”

Aurora Public Schools is the only Colorado district at risk of facing state action next year if state ratings don’t improve this fall. Those ratings will in part be based on the state test data made public Thursday. Munn said he has a “positive outlook” on what the data could mean for the district’s rating.

Disaggregated test data also seemed promising. While gaps still exist between students who qualify for free or reduced price lunch and those who don’t, the gap has shrunk. English language learners are performing better than native English speakers in both math and English language arts tests.

The trends are similar in other metro area districts, but Munn said there are some changes that might be responsible for the better performance by students who are learning English.

The district made changes in how schools teach English by including English language development throughout the school day rather than just during a specific time of day.

The district’s overall median growth scores also increased and reached above 50 for English language arts. For students to make at least a year’s growth, they must have a score of at least 50, something especially important in districts like Aurora where a lot of students are behind grade level.

Aurora’s five innovation zone schools, the biggest reform superintendent Munn has rolled out, saw mixed results. Last fall, the five schools each started working on plans the district and state approved giving them flexibility from some district or union rules and state laws.

Find your school’s scores
Search for your school’s growth scores in Chalkbeat’s database here, or search for your school’s test results and participation rates in Chalkbeat’s database here.

For instance, Boston K-8 school, one that was celebrated last year, had big increases in the number of sixth graders meeting standards on English tests, but big decreases in the number of eighth graders that do.

Central High School, another school in the zone, and one that is now on a state action plan because of low performance, had a median growth percentile of 57 for English tests, meaning the school’s students on average had improvements better than 57 percent of Colorado students when comparing them to students who had similar test scores the prior year. But the math growth score was 46 — below the 50 that is considered a year’s worth of growth.

Central also had a decrease when compared to last year in the number of students that did well on a math test taken by the largest number of students, or more than 400.

Munn pointed out that schools had only started working on the changes in their innovation plans months before students took these tests and said district officials aren’t yet attributing the results, negative or positive, to the reforms.

Some of the data for the individual schools was not released publicly as part of the state’s efforts to protect student privacy when the number of students in a certain category is low.

Districts do have access to more data than the public, and Munn said educators in Aurora will continue to analyze it, school by school, to figure out what’s working and what needs to change.

David Roll, principal of Aurora’s William Smith High School, said the test results for his school were somewhat unexpected.

“I was hoping we would continue to show growth, but I was anticipating an implementation dip,” Roll said. “What this is beginning to demonstrate to us in strong terms is that this is a powerful way for students to learn. And by the way it also shows up on their testing.”

The school, an expeditionary learning school which relies on projects and field work, made a change last year to eliminate typical subject courses and instead have students enroll in two projects per semester which each incorporate learning standards from the typical subjects such as history, English and math.

“We always envisioned we were working toward that,” Roll said.

Here’s how William Smith High School ranked on growth scores for English tests: