changing suburbs

Aurora’s shrinking enrollment: District blames gentrification, prepares to cut budget

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Homeless children in Aurora walk with bags of donated food after school.

Aurora Public Schools is preparing to slash $3 million from its budget in the face of its largest enrollment decline in decades, a sign that the metro area’s skyrocketing housing costs are transforming what has long been an affordable alternative for low-income families.

The number of students who showed up at Aurora schools this fall was less than school district officials had expected, especially in lower-income schools. That hurts on two fronts – it means less state per-pupil funding, and less money earmarked for students in poverty.

Current unofficial student counts put the number of Aurora Public Schools students this fall at 41,926, down from 42,569 in 2015. That would represent the district’s largest enrollment decline in at least 46 years.

“It’s extremely hard to predict housing conditions in Aurora,” Josh Hensley, planning coordinator for Aurora Public Schools, said at a school board meeting this week. “Recent changes have been very abrupt. We went from seeing the largest increases to the largest decline in a matter of a couple of years.”

For decades, Aurora was known as an affordable Denver suburb — a large, diverse city that in places has unrecognizable borders with its neighbors. But housing costs are rising. The website Zillow, which tracks rentals and house sales, estimates Aurora rents have increased 14.3 percent over the past year.

“It appears to have gotten to the point where most modest families can no longer afford to live here,” Hensley said. “We’re becoming less affordable quicker than the metro area.”

Chris Maraschky, executive director of Aurora’s Housing Authority, said that rents in the city are at an all-time high and affordable housing is in high demand, but there’s not enough. The waitlist for Section 8 housing vouchers to help low-income families pay rent hasn’t been opened since 2005.

“Aurora is relatively affordable compared to Denver,” Maraschky said. “I know that doesn’t help if someone is making $12 an hour. Compared to where we were four years ago, things are not affordable.”

According to the district’s research, people need to make about $1,077 a month and $43,000 a year to afford Aurora’s median rent with no burden.

Lisa Jones, a 48-year-old who left her children’s father in March, said she is struggling to find housing in Aurora. Although she is trying to keep her kids in their Aurora schools, she doesn’t know how much longer she will.

“I really don’t want to displace my children,” Jones said. “I really, really don’t.”

For now Jones is living with her four children — two school-aged — and three grandchildren at her parents’ house in Aurora. Jones said her son at South Middle School and her daughter at Aurora Central High School are thriving and have been on honor roll and in student council. Her son also plays the violin.

Every day, Jones and her kids look for a new place to rent.

“It is ridiculous,” Jones said. “Before, honestly I could sit down and look and within two weeks I could find something. It’s not there now. It’s so different.”

Aurora Public Schools’ projections of student enrollment were off by 643 students and were most incorrect for the number of young students in elementary schools. That’s significant because as those kids grow up, their grade levels may remain small and continue to have an impact on schools for a longer period of time.

School district staff laid out the potential budget impact at a school board meeting Tuesday. The short-term plan is to make cuts in every department at the district level, to put more building maintenance projects on hold and to keep any money that schools had intended to carry over from their allocated budgets last year.

Board members had a lengthy discussion, urging the superintendent to be selective about which district departments take cuts, and by how much, based on the services they provide to the district, teachers or students.

“When you take a flat cut, it doesn’t play to how we approach equity in this district,” said board president Amber Drevon.

A small portion of the enrollment decline in Aurora schools could also be due to families sending their kids out of the district to other schools — mostly in Denver.

Last year, the number of Aurora students opting out of the district rose to more than 4,800, up from around 3,400 each of the previous four years. The state has not posted the current year’s numbers.

Staff told the board that tax revenues they thought they would get from the city also haven’t reached expectations.

Despite the cuts, the Aurora school board on Tuesday approved on first reading a new contract for teachers that includes a 1.2 percent salary increase starting in January and a promise that the district will pick up the increases in health insurance costs and pension payments.

The district will revisit teacher raises if voters in November approve a $300 million bond increase.

The district introduced the ballot measure in August, citing a need for a new school to relieve overcrowding in northwest Aurora and maintenance repairs at several schools. If passed, the bond measure would also add classrooms at some schools, including Aurora Central High School and Rangeview High School.

The recent enrollment drops don’t change those needs, officials say.

“From a capacity standpoint, it does not provide us any significant relief as a district,” Hensley said.

That’s because school breakdowns of enrollment show an almost east-west divide in the city. Most schools in the western part of Aurora that border Denver, including Lowry and other neighborhoods, are losing kids. A charter school, the Lotus School for Excellence, is an exception.

The following map illustrates the divide. Click on a pin to identify schools and learn about their enrollment trends:

Farther east, near the neighborhoods of Buckley Air Force Base, schools such as Hinkley High School and Vista Peak continue to grow.

Looking to the coming years, officials are now expecting more budget cuts — and in the next round, schools and teachers would not be shielded from the impact.

Enrollment eventually will stabilize and may grow again, officials predict, but the city could look different by then.

“Aurora has lots of developable land,” Hensley said. “There are several hundred homes being completed,” many of them with more expensive price tags than what has been the norm in Aurora.

'Nothing magic'

Stay the course: Struggling Aurora Central will not face drastic state-ordered changes

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Aurora Central High School has been labeled as failing by the state for five years.

Aurora Central High School will continue ongoing reforms but with help from a management company, avoiding more dire consequences for its chronic low performance over more than five years.

During a hearing Wednesday, the State Board of Education unanimously voted to allow staff to finalize a plan that will give the struggling school at least two more years to keep working on reforms rolled out this school year. The board will vote on the blueprint next month.

“There’s nothing magic about this recommendation,” Katy Anthes, Colorado’s education commissioner, told the board Wednesday. “It just takes an incredible amount of work and dedication. We think the staff members here have that dedication.”

The state department’s recommendations mirrored the district’s proposal, an outgrowth of the state’s approach of working with districts and schools facing state intervention to reach agreements before the accountability hearings.

Aurora Central’s last year of data showed declines in student performance. Attendance data presented Wednesday also has been going in the wrong direction. In the 2015-16 school year, daily attendance was 76.5 percent, significantly lower than the state average attendance rate of 93.2 percent.

But state officials told the board they saw the school’s culture improving, giving them hope the plan could lead to improvements. They also cited a rising graduation rate in the last school year.

“We believe a rigorous implementation of this plan can see rapid change in student achievement and growth,” Anthes said.

Aurora Central is the first large high school to face the state for possible sanctions after reaching its limit of years of low performance. The school enrolls about 2,100 students, of which 70 percent are still learning English as a second language.

Since the start of this school year, Aurora Central has been operating under innovation status, which gives it more autonomy from state and district rules.

Under the innovation plan, the school day at Central was extended, and the school was allowed to reject teachers the district wanted placed there and have more control over all staffing.

District and school officials Wednesday answered questions from board members about education for second language learners, serious attendance problems and their work to engage the community.

Rico Munn, superintendent of Aurora Public Schools, told board members that community support of the school had significantly increased in the last year, as seen by donations to the school and community organizations that are working with school staff.

Board member Pam Mazanec questioned Aurora officials about the amount of money from multiple grants they had already been provided for school reforms in the last four years and why they hadn’t produced good results.

School officials said money spent in the past on teacher training was not followed with help to use the new techniques in the classroom. They said the number of instructional coaches at the school this year has significantly increased in an effort to change that.

“I don’t believe the systems and structures were in place,” said Jennifer Pock, assistant principal at Central. “There was not a time for teachers to collaborate. The support is very different this year to carry on the work that began.”

The new wrinkle in the state improvement plan is the addition of a management company, Boston-based Mass Insight. The company’s work will be in partnership with the district, but exact details of what the company would be in charge of are still being determined.

An official from Mass Insight said Wednesday the company intends to question the district and suggest what to focus on or change.

The school district will be required to provide the state updates about progress at least once a year.

staying the course

Why state education officials think Aurora Central’s latest reforms deserve more time

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia

State education officials believe Aurora Central High School should get at least two more years to see its latest reforms through — with some help.

Last year, Aurora Public Schools went to the state and won innovation status for the struggling school. That gave the 2,100-student school more autonomy from certain rules and laws. Teachers could be hired and dismissed by school officials. The school day was lengthened and programming could stray from what the district was doing.

Some parts of the plan have been a challenge for the school, however, district officials acknowledge in documents.

Many teachers were new and unprepared for the work. The school has struggled to hire for certain positions. And teachers don’t have enough planning time to make student advisory periods “meaningful.”

Still, state officials evaluated the school’s progress and found hope that the plan still could lead to better student performance, and also that it has broad community support.

When state officials and Aurora leaders appear before the state Board of Education on Wednesday, they will present a plan to continue the school’s innovation plan while handing over management of some pieces of it to a Boston-based company. The board must approve the plan for it to move forward.

“Knowing that Aurora Central is a complicated and challenging environment, and knowing that their data is low and they’ve not demonstrated a lot of progress, we believe there are components on that innovation plan that have promise if implemented well and if led well,” said Peter Sherman, executive director for school and district performance at the Colorado Department of Education. “We do believe the management partners piece is key.”

State officials were more critical of the plan in earlier feedback to the district, citing concerns about an aggressive timeline, questions about school leadership and more.

Aurora Public Schools would not make anyone available for an interview to discuss the plan, and the district’s written responses to emailed inquiries left many questions unanswered.

At a recent board meeting, district officials presented a brief update on Central’s accountability plan and said they were confident about the recommendation and the progress at Central.

“We feel that we’ve been aggressive in trying to turn around Central,” Lamont Browne, executive director of autonomous schools for Aurora, told the school board.

About 80 percent of Aurora Central’s more than 2,100 students are identified as low-income based on qualifying for free or reduced price lunches. About 70 percent of students are English language learners, and 12 different languages are spoken.

Less than half of the students at Central graduate within four years. Chronic absenteeism is a “significant problem for two-thirds of all students,” according to the documents the district submitted to the state. The number of students meeting expectations based on state testing has consistently been lower than most schools in the district and in the state.

The plan presented to the state last year for increased autonomy intended to address the school’s issues by creating competency-based learning, which allows students to earn credit as they prove they’ve learned a standard. That would give students more flexibility to earn credit and get lessons that are personalized.

The model has been piloted this year at Central in a limited way during one period of the day for ninth graders. Earlier in the year, Browne said moving to the model was slowed because there were too many new teachers and they needed more training. Now, the school has created a group to look at how to continue the roll-out of the model to 10th graders next year.

The school’s plan also called for a work group to address attendance issues. But according to the documents submitted to the state, the group had to narrow its focus to a certain group of students because of limited “manpower.”

Teachers were supposed to have more joint planning time, but were also asked to do home visits to increase parent engagement and run advisory periods that would allow adults to address students’ non-academic issues, including attendance problems.

Getting teachers and students to buy into the advisory periods has been a problem, the district’s documents state.

The documents also include some plans for adjusting work to address the current challenges.

For instance, to make advisory periods more meaningful, the school will change the schedule so they are only held twice a week. The school also will provide more training to teachers so they can plan those periods.

To improve the rollout of the competency-based model, leaders plan to increase the amount of training for teachers, among other strategies.

“(Professional Development) sessions will involve creating competencies for each standard, as well as coming to a building-wide consensus of what competency looks like based on the demands of each standard,” the document states.

The district cites having more ninth grade students on track for graduation as evidence that tweaks will make a difference. The recommendation cites some improvement on decreasing the dropout rate and increasing the graduation rate this year.

But results from schools that increase school-level autonomy have not been promising in the past. A report last year from the state found that only three of 18 failing schools across the state granted “innovation status” at the time had made enough progress to make it off of the list of schools facing action for low-performance. The findings called into question whether the autonomy granted made a difference for schools with such low performance.

But in the state recommendation for Central, other possible actions for the school — including closing it or converting it to a charter — were not deemed possible for now.

“Given the size of Aurora Central and the community support behind the current reforms being enacted, the Department recommends full implementation of the innovation zone for at least two years before considering conversion to a charter school,” the recommendation states. “CDE does not recommend school closure, first and foremost, because there is not capacity at other district high schools to serve the 2,172 Aurora Central students.”

The plan also proposes a management role for Mass Insight, a Boston-based company that already has been working under contract with some Aurora schools and helped gather input to draft the original innovation plans. Browne said at the board meeting this month that details of what the company would do are not completely worked out yet.

Documents state the company now would “focus on project management and performance management for innovation implementation.”

“Mass Insight’s responsibility is to support implementation of the innovation plan for Central so it is not directing action at all it’s just supporting the innovation plan,” Browne said. “What that looks like next year is still to be determined.”