During the 2016-17 academic year, CCS began its Aurora Program, an alternative education program that provides additional educational and behavioral support to some of its highest-need students. The program initially served scholars from kindergarten through 3rd grade but has expanded to include scholars up to 8th grade. After three years in temporary facilities, the Aurora Program is now housed in its very own building, located on the Harriet Tubman Charter School’s Montessori campus. The Aurora building features four main classrooms, a sensory room, a calm room, individual study spaces, and its own outdoor play area. CCS is proud to be the first charter organization in the city to create a physical space that is tailored to the needs of a specific group of at-risk youth.

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Entrance to the Aurora Program building at 2701 Lawrence Street

“The Aurora Program provides therapeutic support designed for scholars who struggle with emotional and behavioral issues that prevent them from reaching their full potential in a general school setting,” said Carissa Kolakauskas, Aurora’s Program Director. 

The struggles faced by these scholars can range from simply being overstimulated by the number of scholars in a class to the need for more individualized attention or a different kind of schedule. The Aurora program tailors itself to the specific needs of each scholar to set them up for success. 

Crescent City Schools developed the Aurora Program after school leaders across the network realized that some scholars’ needs for a more hands-on and therapeutic approach to schooling were not being met by other city resources or programs. 

“The Aurora Program really was born out of necessity for a program that supports kids, works to keep them in school, and develops the skills needed to succeed,” Kolakauskas added. 

When a scholar experiences challenges at its original school and the staff has exhausted its resources, they send a referral to the Aurora program. Kolakauskas reviews the referral, support documents, and testimonials and, in collaboration with the program social worker, goes to the campus to evaluate the scholar. If the Aurora program is determined to be a good fit, Kolakauskas will schedule a meeting with the student’s parents and the student to set individual goals and begin the transition into the program. 

While in the program, a student’s schedule runs from 9am – 3pm and focuses on his or her individual goals. Scholars have a morning meeting where they set their plans for the day and keep track of their work. Before COVID, the program also went on community field trips to the post office and library to teach scholars how to send a letter or meal plan. Since COVID, however, the program has come up with creative ways to engage the scholars. Recently, there was a fall-themed scavenger hunt that taught the scholars about working in teams and problem-solving. 

The program has four classrooms staffed by four full-time special education teachers, six paraprofessionals, one social worker, and a dean of special education in addition to Kolakauskas. While in the classroom, there are, on average, six scholars per two adults, but the scholars separate into groups of two or three per adult for small group instruction. In addition to their small group instruction, scholars use computer-based personal learning programs such as MobyMax, ST Math, Zearn Math, and i-Ready to complete their learning. 

“Aurora is a program that strives for relationship building, student and staff accountability, and a focus towards individuals’ growth so that they may reach their goals,” Aurora Program Dean Chiante Cunningham said. “We are more than a school. We are a family with a true passion for the work we do.”

Scholars’ progress towards their goals is also shared continuously with parents. The teachers communicate daily with the parents over email or text and send photos of their child. There are also weekly progress reports sent out on Friday and daily behavior trackers sent home for a parent’s signature. The teachers schedule in-person meetings with parents every six weeks, and the program has an open-door policy so parents can drop in and sit through class whenever they want. Additionally, the scholars who take the bus get picked up from their home rather than a bus stop, which provides the bus monitors a chance to check in with the parents, Kolakauskas said. 

Once a scholar has achieved all their individual academic, social, and behavior goals, they can begin transitioning back to their original school. Transition plans can include half days at each school, split weeks, or spending a few hours a week meeting with the school social worker or interventionists to establish trusted contacts before returning full time. 

When it comes to adapting to COVID, the Aurora program went entirely virtual in the Spring. The teachers assigned online lessons through Google Classroom and did entirely virtual days from 10 a.m.–3 p.m., so the scholars had access to their teacher throughout the day. Currently, two-thirds of the scholars are back on campus, and the remaining one-third log in through webcams placed on their desks, so they feel a part of the classroom. 

“It’s incredible to think about the growth that we’ve made as a program since last year and to think about the growth that individual kids are making and how much of the relationship-building piece has contributed to that,” Kolakauskas added. “We’ve built an environment where our scholars, even if they are having a hard day or struggling, feel safe and loved.” 

Interested in learning more about the Aurora Program or think it might be a good fit for a student? Email Carissa Kolakauskas, Director of the Aurora Program, to learn more. ckolakauskas@crescentcityschools.org