Two small Aurora elementary schools will shut their doors for good at the end of this school year after a split Aurora school board voted to approve the superintendent’s recommendations.
The board voted 5-2 to approve closing Lyn Knoll Elementary and Century Elementary and phasing out two other schools, Sixth Avenue Elementary and South Middle School. The changes are part of a yearslong plan for Aurora’s facilities.
“We do not take this lightly,” Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn said. “We also recognize this is what we believe is best for kids.”
Aurora, the fifth-largest school district in the state, has gone through significant enrollment changes in recent years.
Enrollment on the west side of Aurora, where low-income families and many immigrant and refugees live, has been decreasing. That accelerated this school year, and once-packed schools are now below capacity. The district has blamed gentrification for the decline as many families have had to move farther from the metro area to find affordable housing.
Meanwhile, on the east side of Aurora largely open land split by the E-470 highway is now sprouting dozens of housing developments that will require the district to build new schools for the higher-income families who will move in.
Because of the split character of the population of each side of town, the enrollment changes have brought equity concerns from the beginning.
On Tuesday, before the board vote, several teachers and parents asked the district to reconsider and save their schools. The written feedback that the district gathered after community meetings in the past months was limited.
Board members who voted against the closure, Stephanie Mason and Vickie Reinhard, expressed concerns about insufficient community involvement in reaching the recommendations. Mason also voiced concerns about equity.
“How often in our conversations have I heard, ‘because that is what would be the best for the outcomes of our students?’ Mason asked. “I haven’t. That’s concerning to me. Schools are the foundation of our community. We need to really listen to the community.”
Board member Kevin Cox, however, said that equity had been part of the discussion from the beginning.
And he and others said they were happy to see that the west side of Aurora, “the struggling side of town,” would get a new school building, as new families on the east side of the city are getting. The district plans to build a new school on the Lyn Knoll site, which would house preschool through eighth grade.
“Even though we’re just talking about buildings and not instruction, we’re building equity as we go,” Cox said.
Dissenters also were uncomfortable with how many questions remain unanswered. For instance, the district has not told families where their children might go to school in the fall after their elementary schools close. Lyn Knoll and Century currently enroll fewer than 500 children combined.
In some cases, families want to know more about the magnet schools the district plans to create, and how students would be accepted. Community members who addressed the board live during Tuesday’s meeting expressed concern for how Peoria Elementary may change as the district turns it into a magnet school that will attract students from throughout the district.
Munn said that in wanting to involve the community in each part of the process to close and change schools, the district is taking things one step at a time.
He said that shifting enrollment has offered an opportunity to redesign education in the district.
Besides closing schools, the administration has been planning program changes. It has divided the district into seven regions, each with its own unique specialization. Neighborhood schools will get extra district help to teach their region’s specialization.
For instance, in the region designated for visual and performing arts, a magnet school will draw students from all over the district who want to focus on those areas. Other neighborhood schools in that area will be able to take advantage of the nearby arts resources to bolster their own arts education.
Now that the board has voted to move forward with closing Lyn Knoll and Century, the district will launch a new community engagement process to redraw attendance boundaries in those two school areas.
The administration will ask the board to vote on the new boundaries in March. And Munn said the district will design the magnet schools, including their admissions guidelines, in consultation with the community over the next year.
Considering board worries about access to magnet schools, the district has drafted busing plans to eventually allow students to reach magnet schools and the specialization of their choice.
Munn has also asked the board and the community to focus on outcomes, and not just the development of specialties. Equity, he has said, is based on whether students can graduate and succeed, not whether they all learn under the same model.
Board member Marques Ivey said that although Tuesday’s decision was difficult, ultimately he wanted to think long term.
“We can’t be guided by emotions at this stage,” Ivey said. “We can’t keep kicking the can down the road. We have to think five, 10, 15, 20 years from now.”