Aurora ‘Pathways’ students get head start

Janet Mensah isn’t exactly Doogie Howser but, like the prodigal TV doctor, she has already been accepted to medical school. Just 18, she knows she wants to become a gastroenterologist.

Aurora students Ona Kola-Kehinde, left, and William Damon, explain pulse oximetry in a mock hospital room on Thursday.

Of course she has to graduate from high school first, which she’ll do this spring, from Aurora’s William Smith. She’s been accepted into the BA/BS-MD program at the University of Colorado Denver so once she’s received her bachelor’s degree, she’ll go straight into her medical studies.

But in one sense, she’s already commenced her medical work. She’s enrolled in the Health Careers pathways program at her school. Her first class was Introduction to the Medical Sciences, followed by a class in Human Body Systems, and a class in Medical Interventions. She discovered her interest in the digestive system – and gastroenterology – in the Human Body Systems class.

“While many students are still trying to decide their career paths, I already know mine,” she said Thursday, while speaking to a crowd of adults gathered to celebrate the district’s Academic and Career Pathways program.

“Life changes, and I’ll change”

“Life changes, and I’ll change,” she said later, assessing the wisdom of settling on a medical specialty before she even gets out of high school. “But I’m convinced I’ll still want to do this.”

Janet Mensah, a student at Aurora's William Smith High School, is interested in a career as a gastroenterologist.

Aurora Superintendent John Barry likes to point to students such as Mensah when skeptics wonder whether the district’s ground-breaking career-focused curriculum is really working.

“This is clear evidence of the unique things in Aurora Public Schools,” he said at the gathering, meant to showcase the work students are doing in the four career pathways: Health Sciences; Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM); Business; and Arts and Communication. “What we’re seeing today is unique in the nation.”

Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia praised the district for advancing the notion of “P-20” education, shorthand for an integrated education system that extends from preschool through graduate school. In Aurora, students can start taking career pathways classes as early as elementary school.

“Colorado does have a national reputation as a leader in P-20, and Aurora is one of the leading districts in the state in demonstrating what’s possible,” he said. “Schools need to partner with the business community so we’re not just handing kids off, not knowing if they’re really prepared to be successful in the workforce.”

Students can sample a variety of careers

Students are able to jump from career track to career track, as well as taking their core academic classes. That’s because it’s just as important to figure out early on what they’re not interested in pursuing as to figure out what they are interested in, Barry said.

Rangeview High School students Brandi Cameron and Stephen Francoeur exhibit the circuit board project they created in their Digital Electronics class.

Brandi Cameron, a 17-year-old student at Rangeview High School, was showing off the circuit board she designed in her Digital Electronics class. Her task was to design a schematic and build a functioning miniature drawbridge, using binary computer code.

She has loved this experience in engineering. But she considers herself “undecided” when it comes to her career path. She’s really leaning toward medicine.

“I’m doing an internship at a hospital next year,” she said. “But I love working with circuits and engineering, and one day, if I decide I don’t want to go into medicine, I’ll have all this engineering experience to fall back on. Plus, this class has made me a lot more organized.”

Alex Santana, 16, a student at Vista Peak, wants to become a pastry chef. He wants to own his own business. “But before that can happen, I’ve got to grow my education,” he said. “I’ve got to learn more about the stock market.” That’s why he’s in the Business pathway program at Vista Peak.

So far, he’s not only learned about the stock market and managing a portfolio, he’s become certified in Microsoft Word, Excel and Power Point programs, as well as becoming a certified blogger. “I’m much closer to my dream by being able to create and use the technical documents,” he said.

Medical careers a popular option

In one corner of the room at the district’s Professional Learning and Conference Center, students had set up a mock hospital room, and Health Careers students were showing off some of the skills they’d learned.

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Seventeen-year-old Damon Williams, a William Smith student, was explaining how a pulse oximeter works, using a computerized mannequin of a baby.

“I got to work side by side with an RN at Children’s Hospital,” he said later, after explaining the process. “We had patients come in with all sorts of different things. I saw a case where an infant came in who was believed to be affected by bed bugs.”

Williams, too, is an aspiring doctor. “I already knew I wanted to study medicine,” he said. “This has just helped me know more about what it will be like. It’s been a very enriching experience.”

Brittany Wright, a 17-year-old Aurora Central student, isn’t envisioning a career as a physician. “I got to intern at a lab where we made vaccines,” she said. “I think this pathway can help you work in any medical career.”

Hinkley High School student Ona Kola-Kehinde, 17, is also looking to a career in medicine, and he’s grateful for this time of early preparation. “Right now, you can mess up a little,” he said. “I’m having fun right now. Later on, it will be time to get serious.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”