Yes, these Colorado educators are opening new schools during a pandemic and a recession

Winston-Salem, North Carolina, United States (Getty Images/Mint Images RF)

With looming budget cuts, limits on in-person gatherings, and the possibility of more remote learning in the fall, Colorado educators have plenty to think about this summer. 

But the challenges are even more formidable for one group of school leaders: Those opening new schools. While a few have postponed openings until 2021, about a dozen new schools, most of them charters, are set to launch in the fall. 

One-third are in El Paso County, including a school for students with dyslexia called Orton Academy. There are also district-run elementary schools opening in Aurora and Fruita, a charter middle school focused on indigenous education in Denver, and a K-6 charter school with a classical focus in Fort Collins. 

So, what does opening a school look like in the coronavirus era? 

It can mean reassuring prospective families that the school is a sure thing, deciding which expenses can be jettisoned to save money, and hatching plans to create a strong school culture even if students and teachers can’t physically gather together at first. 

For Terri Bissonette, head of the American Indian Academy of Denver, building a strong community is a priority as her team plans to welcome 114 middle schoolers to the new school in August.

“Many of our kids have had bad experiences in school, so they come to school ready for a battle,” she said. “How do we break that armor down and create a safe space so our kids can just be kids? We feel like we know how to do it in person but to do it in a remote space?”

The school originally planned to host two in-person events over the summer: a weeklong youth leadership camp and a weekend family campout. Instead, the school will partner with other local organizations to host two virtual youth camps, one on indigenous video game design and the other on indigenous cooking.

“None of us could have anticipated the level of disruption this has caused,” Bissonette said of the pandemic. “But it makes us be laser-focused on what we’re here to do — and we’re here to support families and kids.”

District leaders in Denver and elsewhere have already announced that a combination of remote and in-person learning is likely in the fall — a model that will allow schools to adhere to public health limits on large gatherings. 

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At least two schools scheduled to open in the fall have postponed their openings because of coronavirus-related complications. One is Padilla Elementary School, a district-run school in District 27J north of Denver. A spokeswoman said the district decided to wait because of the school’s low projected enrollment and the likelihood of state funding cuts. 

“The significant cost to open a new building, especially with low enrollment levels, would cause economic hardships across the district,” she said in an email. 

One of four schools the Colorado Charter School Institute approved to open this fall — Visions Performing Arts College Prep in Aurora — will also postpone its launch until 2021. The other three, all part of established charter networks, are moving forward as planned. 

Terry Croy Lewis, executive director of the institute, said while the sample is small, the 75% of her group’s schools that will open on schedule matches the rate charter school authorizers in other states have reported in recent conference calls. 

Derec Shuler, executive director of Ascent Classical Academies, which will open a new northern Colorado location in the fall, said having two existing Ascent locations makes opening a new school a bit easier. There’s a standard curriculum, a financial cushion that new stand-alone schools might not have, plus this spring’s brief trial run with remote learning. 

“If I were a startup group just putting together a new charter school, I would be freaking out right now,” he said. 

Still, even with experience launching charter schools, there are lots of changes to contend with this year, from hiring teachers without in-person interviews to planning a budget that reflects the state’s gloomy economic outlook. 

“We’re modeling really bad cuts and more realistic cuts,” Shuler said. “We’re not even looking at a no-cut scenario.”

He said the school, which will open in a Fort Collins church until its permanent building in Windsor is ready, may purchase a used school bus instead of a new one, postpone buying certain curriculum materials, and use some church-owned furniture instead of buying its own right away.  

For parents, sending their kids to a brand new school amid the upheaval of a pandemic elicits a little apprehension but also hope and enthusiasm.

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Lynne Fitzhugh, one of the leaders of Orton Academy in Colorado Springs, said she’s not worried about filling the school’s 135 third- through sixth-grade slots in the fall.

“We’ve had a tremendous amount of excitement over this,” she said, with 75 parents signing up in early spring even before the school had done any advertising. 

Many enrolled students — all of whom have characteristics of dyslexia though not necessarily a dyslexia diagnosis — have been left behind by their local public schools, said Fitzhugh, president of the Colorado Literacy and Learning Center, which provides educational services for people with dyslexia.

Orton, which will share a building with the Colorado Military Academy charter school, will feature a daily one-hour block of intensive reading intervention taught by academic language therapists. Fitzhugh said school leaders will ensure that the intervention block happens even if it ends up online.  

Sophia Bagola, whose two youngest children will begin seventh and eighth grade at the American Indian Academy of Denver, has the same fears for them going into a new school year as for her two older children. She worries about keeping them healthy and safe, and said she wouldn’t mind if school started remotely for that reason.

But she’s also excited about giving her middle-schoolers the sense of belonging and pride in their heritage that her family has struggled to find at other Denver schools, where Native American students are a tiny minority. Bagola is a member of the Oglala Lakota Sioux tribe, and her children are also members of the Northern Cheyenne tribe through their father. 

“That’s the No. 1 reason I want my kids to go to that school: to enforce their identity; to ensure their self-worth; to know that they can be proud to be Native,” she said.

Parent Megan Engelstad, whose daughter Anna will start fourth grade at the new Ascent, is circumspect about the disruptions possible next year — especially because she spent the last year home-schooling her two children.

“We’ll take whatever happens when it comes, but I’m not going to live in a place where I’m not moving forward in my life because I’m afraid of what will happen,” she said. 

A former middle school teacher, Engelstad loves the classical approach to education and jumped at the chance to enroll her daughter at the new school because of the network’s track record with its other two schools and because of the long waitlist at another classical charter school the family considered.

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“I look at the opportunity that the school is going to give my kiddo,” she said. “It excites me what she’s going to be getting out of this.”

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