Aurora school board approves charter school being eyed as replacement for struggling elementary

A divided Aurora school board Tuesday narrowly approved the application of a Denver-based charter school seeking to replace a struggling elementary school in northwest Aurora.

The seven-member board voted 4-3 to approve Rocky Mountain Prep’s charter application. However, the board did not vote on a contract that would allow Rocky Mountain Prep to take over the low-performing Fletcher Community School starting with preschool this fall.

Instead, the board discussed doing so at a special meeting as early as next week.

Typically, Aurora Public Schools has 90 days after it approves a charter school’s application to negotiate a contract with that school, Superintendent Rico Munn explained to the board. In this instance, APS sped up that timeline, both to address board members’ concerns about what the contract would look like and because the district’s plan calls for Rocky Mountain Prep to start offering preschool at Fletcher in August.

Several parents and community members spoke in favor of the plan.

“I realize that Rocky Mountain Prep shares the same hope and idea that we as immigrants share,” said Alfonse Nde, a member of the African Leadership Group, a nonprofit organization based in Aurora. “We need better schools and better education for our kids.”

Daniella Gutierrez lives in Aurora but sends her two children and two of her nieces and nephews to Rocky Mountain Prep in Denver. She told the board about a recent conversation the children had at the dinner table: “What is something that made your day great?” they asked each other. “And what is a strategy you could have used to make your day better?”

She credits that conversation to the skills they’re learning at school.

“I am asking you support Rocky Mountain Prep so the other children in my community receive a quality and rigorous education,” Gutierrez said.

A few speakers urged the board to reject the charter school. Fletcher teacher Abby Cillo said it feels as though APS is giving up.

“Fletcher is not just a school,” she said. “The people there are not just a test score. We are not deemed failing to ourselves.”

Board member Cathy Wildman voted against Rocky Mountain Prep. She said that while she has supported charter school applications in the past, she feels as though the district didn’t do a good job engaging Fletcher parents and teachers in coming up with a plan to improve academic performance at the school, which has struggled since it opened in 2000. Fletcher serves mostly low-income students.

“I wish we had said to the community: ‘We want you to solve the problem,’” Wildman said.

But board president Amber Drevon said that while she agrees the district could have done a better job, “I cannot in good conscience sit back even one more year and allow what is happening at Fletcher to happen.”

Last year, only 2 percent of third graders met or exceeded state expectations on the inaugural PARCC English exam. At the same time, not a single third grader was proficient in math.

The proposed contract calls for Rocky Mountain Prep to gradually replace the current program. In 2016-17, it says the charter school will serve preschool students. Under the direction of a new principal, Fletcher will continue to serve students in kindergarten through fifth grade.

By 2017-18, the proposal says Rocky Mountain Prep will serve students in preschool through second grade, adding third grade in 2018-19 and fourth and fifth grades in 2019-20.

The proposed contract also addresses several concerns raised by board members, APS officials said Tuesday. For instance, it specifies that the charter school would be required to accept all children who live in the Fletcher boundary. The contract also says APS would provide transportation for Rocky Mountain Prep students “to the extent it can be coordinated with existing Fletcher transportation routes.”

Under the proposed contract, APS would also continue to operate a program for students with autism at the Fletcher campus unless and until the school district and Rocky Mountain Prep agree the charter school should take over that program, as well.