The Heights

Hidden Stars: Meet the top-performing charter school you've likely never heard of

Hidden in the heart of The Heights, Aurora Collegiate Academy is an unassuming collection of small, modular buildings. Once inside, it becomes clear this elementary school is unique among its peers.

From classrooms named after state universities and Ivy League colleges to Mandarin Chinese lessons, customized classes and time set aside for emotional development and 'brain breaks,' Aurora’s approach is different. 

“We create flexibility in how we let our teachers develop their classrooms," said Aurora's principal, Teneicesia White. 

"Some years it looks like a deskless classroom. Some years it looks like flexible seating. We are structured to be able to create a safe learning environment for students to be able to take academic risks."

The K-5 public charter school puts intensive focus on individualized support for students, families and faculty development, and the approach appears to be paying off.

Based on 2018-19 TNReady data, Aurora is the highest performing elementary charter school in the Shelby County School district in both language arts and math proficiency. 

Aurora Collegiate Academy Principal Teneicesia White (L) and Executive Director Grant Monda. (Cat Evans)Aurora also earned a 2018 Reward school designation from the State of Tennessee, which indicates improvement and high achievement across several key indicators for all students and all student groups.

"We were the only charter [elementary] school in SCS to receive the award," said Grant Monda, executive director.

Aurora is in its eighth year of operation and primarily serves children from the neighborhood, most of them low-income students of color.

Located at 3804 Given Avenue, the school’s diverse makeup reflects its surrounding community.

Of the 325 students enrolled, roughly 70 percent are Hispanic or Latinx. Most of the remaining 30 percent are African American. 

Monda said the school does have a few families who travel from elsewhere in the city to attend and some families who lived in the neighborhood and moved away but still attend.

Although Aurora's performance is exceeding expectations, its current location is falling short.

Housed in three modular buildings, Aurora doesn’t have enough space to keep up with growing enrollment needs. In December, the school will relocate to 4841 Summer Avenue roughly 2.5 miles east of its current location.

The new 69,000-square-foot space was previously City Gear's headquarters and distribution center. 

"We kept the exterior walls — everything [less] is basically new," said Monda. "We have new floors, every wall is brand new. We put on a brand new roof, new HVAC systems, new plumbing."

The space may be new but Aurora's administration and educators are committed to transplanting then growing its unique philosophies, culture and strategies.

Chief among them, the staff believes it’s never too soon to start working toward their students’ academic futures and, specifically, college enrollment and graduation. 

The school’s name is college-focused, but the reinforcement extends deeper. Classrooms are named for their teachers' college alma maters. Each year, the students learn their classroom college's fight song and pick a mascot together.

“We were founded eight years ago under the belief that college begins in kindergarten for our scholars," said Monda.

Kindergarten scholar C'aleyhia Grandberry serenades her class during the show-and-tell portion of her Friday. (Cat Evans)

A Day at Aurora Collegiate

As soon as they get out of the car, Aurora students are greeted with a firm handshake and a 'good morning, how are you, good to see you.'

“We try to make things as personal as possible to show our students that we care about them, and that we want to nurture them; that we are glad that they are here,” said White.

Most students eat breakfast at Aurora then head to their classrooms.

The school day revolves around group and individual learning for academic support, social-emotional development and a focus on both the culture of the school and cultures of the world.

Class time starts starts with an hour of group instruction in literacy or math. Students then break into small groups to focus on particular areas of need.

This two-hour block is followed by enrichment programs and, of course, lunch.

The school partners with the Ira Samelson Jr. Boys & Girls Club, located next door, for access to gym space for play and lunchtime. Many Aurora students also attend the club's after school program, which provides homework help, playtime, music lessons, snacks, dinner and more. 

Related: "Heights Boys and Girls Club earns national acclaim, trains Memphis musicians"

Throughout the day,  students receive small-group support from teachers, individualized instruction time and peer-to-peer learning. Daily touchpoints gauge skill levels and students are also provided academic coaches for additional individual support when needed.

There's also time for 'brain breaks,' where students take a break from traditional learning to recharge their brains with play and creative expression. 

For enrichment activities, the school focuses on other cultures and countries to broaden understanding of the world and to build empathy for others.

"We’ve seen our students grow a lot more empathetic as a result of learning a new culture," said Monda.

Starting in kindergarten, all students take two hours a week of Mandarin language lessons and Chinese culture instruction. Only eight elementary schools in Shelby County Schools are designated international studies schools and have similar immersion in foreign languages and cultures.

“Mandarin is our primary language because China is a large, developing country, and I think it will serve our students well," said Monda. "We were looking for a country and a culture that is truly very different from ours."

(L to R) Aurora Collegiate Academy first grade scholars Uriel Martinez, Roman Gibson and Jace Banks use brain break time to build skyscrapers. (Cat Evans)

Investing in 'Emotional IQ'

Beyond academics, Aurora recognizes the need for social and emotional development in the classroom.

Each Friday, students participate in Second Step. The social-emotional learning program devotes thirty minutes of instruction to helping students develop coping skills to work through emotions and express feelings in a productive way.

The work also promotes the school’s “PRIDE values” of personal responsibility, respect, integrity, determination and excellence.

In addition to Second Step, students come together twice monthly for a Community Meeting where they celebrate their academic and cultural achievements. Its purpose is to build up individuals and school culture, and it's one of the things Aurora's staff feels differentiates the school.

During the high-energy, pep-rally style meetings, students send 'shine' or good energy and positive thoughts to their fellow scholars. A Rockin' Reader from each class is recognized for achievements in literacy and given a new book. A scholar exhibiting the school's PRIDE values earns a trophy, and each class sings their fight song.

“I guess the overall thing that sets us apart is that, yes, we care about our students academically — we work really hard to meet their needs academically — but we also support their social and emotional needs," said White.

"We know the only way we are going to get to and through college is if they have those skills."

Supporting Faculty and Families For Student Success

A major part of Aurora's academic success isn't its focus on students, but its focus on faculty and families.

Students are dismissed early every Friday to give faculty time to think through their week. The time includes opportunities to collaborate and brainstorm with fellow educators, as well as work with the school's two academic coaches who observe classrooms throughout the week and provide data, feedback and coaching for both staff and student development. 

For Aurora's faculty, Friday afternoons might be spent exploring a new teaching technique, revamping a lesson plan informed by performance data from the week or working through a specialized intervention for a specific student. And throughout it all, they have help.

“That time is specific to that teacher. It is meant to discuss anything that they notice in their observation of a classroom," said White.

"It is also used to work on our teacher’s personal professional goals. Just like we are developing them for our students, we also want to develop our teachers as people because that is how you retain a staff or teachers."

This year, Aurora hired a family coordinator whose role is to bridge the gap between school and home.

“We think of Aurora as being more than just an elementary school. [It's] a centerpiece to a community," said Monda. "We provide a lot of opportunities for our families to engage in the community."

Once a month, the school also holds parent workshops with families. The workshops span a variety of topics of interest to Aurora's families. Last year, for example, an immigration lawyer spoke about the immigration process and the rights of families living in the United States.

No Family Left Behind

Unlike most public schools in the Shelby County system, Aurora has its own school board. Comprised of volunteers, they represent different industries and skill sets within the community.

“This is my first year on the board and I’m truly grateful because I get a more in-depth understanding of what Aurora is built on," said Aurora board member Ashley Morales.

"I am part of the Academic and Cultural Excellence Committee, where we truly focus on the growth of each child."

Morales has three young children, two of whom attend Aurora. She said she understands the struggles of many of the families in the Heights community, where Spanish is often spoken as a first or second language at home but not at school. That language barrier can keep parents from fully participating in their child's education. 

“My mother is from El Salvador and my father is from Birmingham, Alabama. I grew up mostly with my mother and her family where I learned to speak, read and write Spanish,” said Morales, a Los Angeles native who's lived in Memphis for five years. 

Morales said that at Aurora, intentional steps are taken to ensure people from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds are not left behind due to things like language barriers.

“Since Aurora has such a diverse student body, we want to make sure that Aurora is providing an all-inclusive learning environment with high academic standards," she said.

"[As a parent,] it was important for me to find a school that is diverse and culturally open," she continued. "They truly embody their mission in providing a school with high academics and values."
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Read more articles by Kim and Jim Coleman.

Kim Coleman is a journalist with over 20 years of experience in newsrooms as a reporter, editor and graphic designer, including ten years with The Commercial Appeal as Design Director/Senior Editor and Print Planning Editor. 


Jim Coleman is a freelance writer, covering a variety of topics from high school sports, community news and small business. He has written for different news organizations over the past 20 years, including The Commercial Appeal, Community Weeklies, Lexington Herald-Leader and The Albuquerque Journal.