Aurora high school’s night class program offers new path to graduation

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AURORA | For nearly 80 upperclassmen at Hinkley High School, the first bell of the school day rings at 2:30 p.m.

But it’s not because a sect of Hinkley juniors and seniors are cutting the majority of their classes — not anymore, anyway.

Since January, 78 Hinkley students who were off-track to graduate have enrolled in the Aurora school’s new night school program, which allows students who are behind in their credit requirements to take class later in the day.

With classes starting at 2:30 p.m. each day, the program has students work through online lessons at their own pace until 8 p.m. The school “day” is broken into four sections, with different subjects interspersed throughout, according to Andre Bala, dean of the night school program.

The genesis of the Hinkley night school program started in December 2015, when Hinkley principal Matthew Willis informed staff that the district had freed up funds for the school to begin offering evening classes for students who were off-track to graduate. Bala, a former night school counselor at Colorado High School Charter in Denver, said that his experience compelled him to volunteer to head the new project.

Bala said that night school began the semester with 35 students, most of whom were Hinkley seniors behind on credits. The program more than doubled in size after Bala and his team began also encouraging off-track juniors at Hinkley, as well as students who had dropped out of the school in the past two years, to enroll in the late-day classes.

“We did some old-school cold calling, saying, ‘Hey, you might feel that graduation is beyond you, but we’ve got another opportunity for you,’” Bala said. “We’ve just kind of been rocking and rolling from there.”

As of May 18, 42 students who were enrolled in night school had graduated, according to Bala. He said that more students will continue to finish exams and complete their credit requirements through the end of June, which is when the program will officially stop for summer break.

Bala said that the program allows students who had given up on graduating the chance to reengage with the public school system.

“If a student doesn’t connect with the people at school, they’re not going to come,” he said. “You could be Albert Einstein, but if Albert Einstein can’t connect with kids in his quantum physics class, kids aren’t going to learn anything from him. That’s just how urban education works.”

Bala said that he’s watched students who once missed more than half of their classes start to show up 80 or 90 percent of the time.

Building those relationships with students in the current senior class isn’t a new practice for Bala, however, as the current dean was a ninth-grade counselor at Hinkley in 2011 and 2012, when the now-seniors were wide-eyed freshmen.

“This group of seniors was the last group of freshmen I had here at Hinkley before I left, so I knew a lot of students,” he said. “That’s been one of the great parts about it.”

DeVonn Cluse, a Hinkley senior on the cusp of graduating from night school, said the program has allowed him to balance his studies with a demanding late-night job and extracurricular actives with the choir group and jazz band.

A former honors student, Cluse entered the second semester of the school year in poor academic shape due to mental health issues and a lack of sleep incurred by working the graveyard shift 30 hours a week at a nearby Wendy’s restaurant.

“Considering the fact that if it wasn’t for this program I wouldn’t be able to graduate, I think it’s a pretty great opportunity for those who have a troublesome home or they have to work constantly just to pay the bills,” he said.

Cluse said that he’s hoping to attend the Community College of Aurora through the state’s ASCENT program next year, which allows students to participate in a year of university courses paid by for the local public school district. Long term, he said he plans to attend the Colorado School of Mines in Golden.

Barring any budgetary changes, night school will continue offering classes to Hinkley students next year, albeit a condensed version of what was available this semester, according to Bala. He said that the school will likely hire one licensed teacher and one paraprofessional educator to assist with night school activities — half of the four-person team Bala currently supervises.

Nathaniel Ceceña, a junior at Hinkley who has participated in night school this semester, said he plans on re-enrolling in the program next year. He said that he’s been able to recoup many of the credits he lost earlier this year due to several stays in the hospital, as well as frequently helping out at this family’s bakery business, Dulce Vida Fiestas Bakery.

“It’s so boring,” Ceceña said of the program and the school work. “But it works. It works for me and it works for a lot of the other kids here, too. It’s easier for them.”

Bala said that the eventual goal is to provide the night school option for the entire school population, not just students who may be off-track.

“One size doesn’t fit all,” he said. “The more we can differentiate in our buildings, the more we can meet our students’ needs.”