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Succeeds Prize: Aurora ACTION Zone recognized for education innovation

After years of struggles at Aurora Central High School, the district had to come up with a new, drastic plan.

AURORA, Colo. — Innovation can come in many forms. Anna Kwan tries to spark it every day at Crawford Elementary School.

"Kind of like planting a seed so that as they are progressing through the grades they might encounter other opportunities that they become intrigued at – rather than feel intimidated by," Kwan said.

Kwan works with young students, teaching them creative play to foster engineering skills and encourage imagination.

"A lot of the kids, they don’t feel very confident in their own ability to create something from scratch," she said.

Crawford Elementary is among five schools working together in what's called the ACTION Zone, which also includes Paris Elementary, Boston Elementary, Aurora West College Preparatory Academy and Aurora Central High School.

"The ACTION Zone is a set of schools that share innovation status," said Jeff Park, executive director of the Office of Autonomous Schools for Aurora Public Schools (APS).

Innovation status means that schools in the ACTION Zone have flexibility to find new ways of reaching kids, Park said.

"It's what can we do differently if we had permission to do that," he said.

Credit: Nelson Garcia
Anna Kwan teaches students at Crawford Elementary School in Aurora.

Kwan said the flexibility means it's OK to be bold with her lessons.

"Sometimes the tweaks, you fail even more, or sometimes the tweaks you're like 'wow, I stumbled upon something that works even better,' " she said. "It's kind of a type of energy that feeds you and keeps you going."

Innovation was borne out of necessity. For years, Aurora Central High School struggled with low test scores and low graduation rates. Under state orders in 2016, APS came up with a new plan.

"We were searching for a solution that would allow us to anchor the kind of resources and innovations here at Central that would help drive the kind of change we needed to see in the neighborhood," Park said.

Park said he believes this change should be steered by the community, including parents like Judith Padilla at Aurora Central High School.

"I like being able to voice my ideas," Padilla said through a Spanish interpreter.

Credit: Nelson Garcia
Judith Padilla is part of a Parents in Action group at Aurora Central High School.

She's part of a group called Parents in Action that meets regularly with school leaders to make sure everyone has a voice.

"I can come here and stay involved and get aware and maybe create change," Padilla said.

Even before recent shootings outside Central High School and across Aurora, Padilla wanted families to work together with the school to find ways to keep kids safe.

RELATED: Youth violence prevention groups come together to provide support

"I think crime prevention was my biggest topic, something that I really wanted the other parents to know," she said.

She also wants Kianna Crow, Central's community school coordinator, to know. Crow works with families and immigrant communities that never used to get involved in school.

"We were just trying to get people into the building, and we've moved the needle from parent involvement to parent engagement and now we're trying to take that to the next step," Crow said.

Park said the next step is the key.

"I think it's beyond just a belief," Park said. "It's then to invest and put their efforts into helping us to achieve the kinds of things that we know are possible here."

Credit: Nelson Garcia
Jeff Park is executive director of the Office of Autonomous Schools for Aurora Public Schools.

Crow also brings community organizations into the school to support families-in-need directly with what she calls culturally relevant activities and programs.

"So, we have partners here that have their own building space that are doing their own programming or there's partners that come before or after school and work with students," Crow said.

It's all part of the ACTION Zone that Park said is working well, so far.

"Graduation rates are starting to climb," he said. "We are starting to see better improvements in classroom outcomes as well."

9News partners with Colorado Succeeds, a group created by members of the business community. Each year, Colorado Succeeds awards the prestigious Succeeds Prize to six programs. This year, Aurora's ACTION Zone received The Succeeds Prize for Education Innovation.

Click here to learn more about Colorado Succeeds.

RELATED: Colorado Succeeds announces 2021 prize winners

"We feel very honored to be recognized for the work that we do because the work that we're doing is a direct reflection of the values of our school as well as the Zone," Kwan said.

She said the Zone works together to do things differently – with a purpose. The ACTION Zone provides teachers with additional professional development.

"Working collaboratively with the other schools, and if our students stay within the zone as they progress to middle school and high school, there's less re-teaching of the same things," Kwan said.

Though she teaches creative lessons to students every day, Kwan is not a classroom teacher. She's the librarian. She said she serves as an example of innovation executed inside the ACTION Zone.

"Without the support of my administrators, as well as the different directives within the zone, I couldn’t possibly do something like this," Kwan said.

The Succeeds Prize comes with a $15,000 cash award and yearlong supports of sharing their story of success with other schools across the state. 9News will feature a different winner on the first Friday of every month during the school year.

Credit: succeeds prize

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