Aurora school board candidates, at forum, pitch few new ideas to improve schools

AURORA — All seven of the candidates vying for three seats on this close-in suburb’s school board told a crowd of immigrant and refugee parents at a forum on Thursday that the struggling school district needs to do more to prepare students for life after high school.

But not every candidate agreed on how or what role parents should play in that effort.

The top three vote-getters in this election will join four others on the governing board of 42,000- student Aurora Public Schools.

Once sworn in, the new members will need to tackle the district’s grim reality: only one in 10 students is college ready, students and teachers don’t feel safe in their schools and parents lack information necessary to make good choices about their students.

Those were the findings of a blistering report, released earlier this month, produced by several Denver-based education reform advocacy groups and Aurora-based nonprofits, including RISE Colorado.

RISE, a parent advocacy group working in the Original Aurora neighborhood, was the sponsor of Thursday’s forum.

Meet the candidates | Learn where the seven Aurora school board candidates stand on the issues that matter to you here.Few candidates were able to articulate any specific policy shift they would champion to reverse Aurora’s poor academic performance.

Linda Cerva, a community activist, said she would want the district to invest in more personalized-learning software for students.

Michael Donald, a small business owner, said he wants more teachers to look like Aurora’s mostly Latino and black students.

But as incumbent Dan Jorgensen pointed out, APS officials are already at work on a number of initiatives to boost student learning including those mentioned at the forum. He suggested some patience was needed to see if the district’s current reforms would work.

“We need stability in the district,” Jorgensen said.

All candidates said they supported the district’s new strategic plan, albeit a starting point.

And while most candidates put the onus of driving the district’s improvement on the school board and administration to boost student achievement, incumbent Cathy Wildman told parents in the audience, specifically, needed to step up to help the district.

“Many kids are not in the classroom because parents aren’t supporting them to be there,” she said.

School board candidates Grant Barrett, a small business owner, and Monica Colbert, who works for a foundation, said they believe parents and students need more school choice.

“We need to attract and bring in good high quality charter schools while focusing on student achievement,” Barrett said.

APS has historically been seen as unfriendly to charter schools. However, in the last year, APS has updated a number of policies to make it easier to open up a charter school in the district. But for the time being, APS has no space to offer a charter school, which is unappealing to well-established charter operators that otherwise would need to find their own space.

That could change after the 2016 election. The district is flirting with the idea of asking voters to increase taxes to fund new building needs. All seven school board candidates said they’d favor asking voters for more money.

One parent wondered why APS doesn’t try to replicate the teaching strategies of countries where most of its new refugee and immigrant students come from?

“That sounds like a great idea,” said candidate Billie Day, a retired teacher.

Day went on to say a first step in that direction would be recruiting more parent aids from a variety of international backgrounds.