dollars and sense

Aurora school board to decide fate of cash-strapped charter school

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at the AXL Academy in Aurora worked in pairs or small groups to solve math problems.

The Aurora Public Schools Board of Education tonight will decide the fate of one of its charter schools that has just enough cash to operate until the end January.

The school board will decide whether to shutter the AXL Academy charter school at the end of the month, close it at the end of the school year, or extend its charter for 18 months so the school can possibly regain its financial footing.

At stake is what’s best for the 500 students of AXL —  about 90 percent of whom live inside the APS attendance boundaries — and the suburban school system’s own finances.

AXL officials, who met with the APS school board earlier this month, told board members that the financial shortfall was caused entirely by the school enrolling 100 fewer students than originally budgeted for.

According to the officials’ remarks at the APS school board meeting and in subsequent interviews with Chalkbeat Colorado, it appears most of the school’s staff, its board, and district officials were kept in the dark about the shortfall until after the state’s official count day in October.

Count day is one of the most important days of the school year. On this day, schools and districts report how many students are at their desks. Those numbers determine how much money school systems receive from the state for the entire school year. While AXL’s enrollment did increase this year, it still fell short of its growth projection of 600 students.

As a result of the enrollment shortfall. AXL received about $700,000 less than officials had projected.

AXL officials claim they have a plan to establish a solid fiscal foundation. They believe the kindergarten through eighth grade school should stay open because the school has growth potential. District-run expeditionary learning schools are popular in Aurora and have waiting lists.

AXL also meets or beats the district’s average student achievement results on state reading and writing tests, although those scores have slipped by double digit percentage points in the last three years and still lag behind the state’s average.

While the school, which has similar demographics to the district’s, has underperformed the district’s and state’s average in math, overall the school has earned the state’s highest rating a school can earn for the last three years.

Donny Wright, left, and his son, Trenton Wright, 12, were among the 200 AXL Academy charter school supporters who packed an Aurora Public Schools Board of Education meeting earlier this month. AXL Academy has enough money to operate through January. It's requesting an 18-month charter extension and loan from the APS.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Donny Wright, left, and his son, Trenton Wright, 12, were among the 200 AXL Academy charter school supporters who packed an Aurora Public Schools Board of Education meeting earlier this month. AXL Academy has enough money to operate through January. It’s requesting an 18-month charter extension and loan from the APS.

AXL officials hope an extension to the school’s charter will provide the campus a chance to move past its financial mistakes and refocus on teaching and learning.

“We don’t want to dwell on the past,”said Matt Wasserman, the school’s new board president, at the Dec. 2 APS board meeting. “We’ve made a clean break from the past. We want the ability to have a fresh star. This is a financial crisis. But it is not an academic crisis. … AXL is asking for what amounts to a second chance.”

Since late October, AXL’s school director, Audra Philippon has left. The school has restructured its administration team and board of directors, and also cut about $90,000 from its budget.

Philippon did not respond to a request for comment.

As part of its restructuring, the school has hired a charter school consulting firm for about $30,000.

“We’ve tried to keep the cuts as far away from the classroom as possible,” said Brent Reckman, AXL’s co-principal, at the APS board meeting. “Cutting the Spanish team was the most difficult.”

It’s still unclear how only a select few of the school’s administrators knew about under enrollment problems and what specific systems will be in place by the end of the school year to prevent a similar budgeting problem going forward.

AXL is asking the district to defer about $315,000 in fees for district services and establish a credit line for about the same amount.

Part of the conversation tonight between AXL and the APS board will be to discuss what the financial trade-offs are for either keeping the school open or closing it.

“I need to have a real good idea about what it would cost the district for the 2014-15 and 2015-16 school year,” said Mary Lewis, an APS board member.

If the board agrees to float AXL a lifeline there is no guarantee the district will see the hundreds of thousands of dollars again. The school could ultimately close if it can’t boost its enrollment. Some families have already left since news about the financial hardship spread.

If AXL does shut down, any assets such as computers the school purchased with state tax dollars would become the property of APS, according to a spokeswoman with the Colorado League of Charter Schools.

This isn’t the first time AXL has had money woes. In the fall of 2013, APS sent a letter to the school claiming AXL was not in compliance with its charter contract due to concerns about its financial status and governance structure. But the school corrected course, APS officials pointed out to their board this month.

“We were here last year, but for different reasons,” said Rico Munn, APS’s superintendent. “As of June, we all felt good.”

While there have been signs the Aurora school board is becoming more friendly to charters, over the years it has earned a reputation of being anti-charter. While neighboring school districts like Denver Public Schools and Douglas County have been steadily opening charter schools, APS hasn’t authorized another charter school since AXL opened in 2008.

The APS board’s decision tonight could signal a greater openness to working with charter school or a closing of the ranks.

Aurora officials and board members earlier this month said they were happy the district and charter school officials were communicating through the entire process. And many board members praised the school for rallying parent support. More than 200 parents, teachers, and students packed the modest APS board room earlier this month to show support for the school.

If the board decides to shut down the school at the end of the month, all AXL students — regardless of what school district they live in — would be able to choose an APS school to attend so long as a seat was available.

AXL’s parent Max Garcia’s  three students would likely finish the school year at their neighborhood school, Jewel Elementary. But he hopes it doesn’t come to that.

“I believe in the expeditionary learning model,” he said. “If they close the school, it’d break my heart. I volunteer there. I teach the cooking club. I know a lot of the kids on a first name basis.”

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that 90 percent of AXL students live inside the Aurora Public Schools boundary. 

take note

Aurora is rolling out new curriculum to catch up with how teachers teach writing

A fourth grader in Aurora's Peoria Elementary takes notes while reading. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

After fourth-graders at Aurora’s Peoria Elementary read “Tiger Rising” as a group last week, several excitedly shot up their hands to explain the connections they had made.

“It’s not just a wood carving, it represents their relationship,” one student said about an object in the book. Others talked about another symbol, the lead character’s suitcase, while one student wondered about the meaning of the story’s title.

Nick Larson’s class rushed back to their desks, excited about what they had learned and ready to look for symbols in their own books during independent reading time. As they read, students filled their books, including the “Lost Treasure of the Emerald Eye,” “Because of Winn-Dixie” and “Super Sasquatch Showdown,” with sticky notes about what they were noticing in the text.

It’s one small way Aurora teachers are integrating writing and reading, a practice officials refer to as “balanced literacy.” It means reading about writing, and writing about reading. It’s not a new teaching practice, but the district has spent $4.7 million on new literacy curriculum from two different sources — schools get to pick one — to help teachers combine those lessons.

The materials replace curriculum adopted in 2000.

At Peoria, a school of about 429 students, of which approximately 90 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty, teachers were using some of the new curriculum last year. Larson, who also coaches other teachers half of the day, said he pushes students to think about what the author might have wanted them to feel. He asks students to write about the characters in the books they read, to better understand them.

“We’re trying to make connections throughout the day,” Larson said.

The previous literacy materials called for teaching reading and writing separately, and some didn’t include writing. They also no longer aligned with standards that the state changed in 2010.

An internal Aurora audit found different schools using a wide variety of resources as they supplemented the out-of-date curriculum.

And this fall, district staff found another reason why the new curriculum was necessary.

In dissecting state test results, Aurora discovered that about 40 percent of its third-through-eighth-graders earned zero points on certain writing sections of the test.

“We’ve got to address that,” said Andre Wright, Aurora’s chief academic officer. “You can’t leave that level of opportunity on the table. We just can’t do that.”

Starla Pearson, the district’s executive director of curriculum and instruction, explained that she expects to see changes soon.

“With the literacy curriculum that is in place right now, I have great confidence,” Pearson said. “We did not have something that specific, looking at writing instruction.” All of the curriculum now, she said, does include writing resources.

“This gives me such encouragement on the one hand because it’s a pretty simple fix … you’re seeing a real clear path to increasing points,” said Debbie Gerkin, an Aurora school board member. “The discouraging part is why wasn’t this happening?”

But about three-quarters of Aurora schools were already using the writing half of the curriculum before this year. Now all elementary and middle schools will use both the reading and writing parts of the district’s newly adopted curriculum. The district is now reviewing potential changes to high school curriculum.

District officials told the board that it’s possible the change in state tests in 2015 may have also contributed to the low scores. Previously, students took separate reading and writing tests and earned separate scores. The new state tests ask students to read a passage, and then respond to it in writing, combining the subjects.

Aurora officials said they didn’t have a way to compare the results they found with other districts. Colorado and most districts do not have comparable detailed results on segments of the state tests.

Wright said this information has prompted him to ask many questions internally. For starters, Aurora will focus training for teachers on combining reading and writing lessons. The district has spent $180,000 to provide teacher training on using the new resources.

But Bruce Wilcox, the president of the Aurora teachers union, said that teachers have been concerned about the limited time they had to learn and explore the new materials, which were only provided to them a few weeks before classes started.

Pearson said early anecdotal feedback has been positive.

“Teachers are saying, ‘thank you, we have a resource,’” she said.

Larson, who was one of 36 teachers from 10 schools who got to review and recommend which curriculum the district should adopt, said he likes several aspects of the materials.

“I feel like I’m being pushed as a teacher,” Larson said.

The district plans to survey teachers about the materials, and will look at internal test data throughout the year, as well as writing results next year to look for improvements.

“We will see a difference,” Pearson said.

blueprint

Shrinking here, expanding there, Aurora district wants to hear your thoughts on how to handle growing pains

A student at Vista Peak in Aurora works on an assignment. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

The Aurora school district faces sharply dropping enrollment in its northwest corner, but anticipates tracts of new homes filled with students to the east in coming years. To help figure out how it should manage its campuses, the district is turning to the public.

The district held its first of four public meetings Wednesday, and has launched an online survey to gather more input. About 20 attendees Wednesday afternoon answered questions about their thoughts on Aurora — an overwhelming majority said it’s diversity that makes the district unique — on the most important thing schools should have — most said good academic programs — and expressed a desire for more science-technology-engineering-and-math programs, as well as dual-language programs.

Then participants talked with moderators from an outside consultant group hired by the district, while district staff and board members floated around listening to conversations.

The district seeks to address challenges explained to the school board last year, posed by declining, and uneven, enrollment.

In the east of the district, development is planned on empty land near E-470 and out to Bennett, and schools may be needed.

In historic, central Aurora, bordering Denver, gentrification is causing one of the district’s fastest drops in enrollment. But because many of those schools were so crowded, and are typically older buildings, the schools may still need building renovations, which would require an investment.

Aurora district officials told the school board they needed a long-term plan that can support the vision of the district when making facilities decisions.

The decisions may also affect how the district works with charter schools. Enrollment numbers show more families are sending their children to charter schools, and the district is asking questions to find out why.

The online survey, translated into the district’s most common 10 languages other than English, includes questions about why parents choose Aurora schools, what kinds of programs the district should expand, and about whether school size should be small or large.

The survey will be online until Sept. 24.

In the next phase of planning, a task force will draw from community input to draft possible “scenarios.” That task force includes one teacher and several officials from the district and other organizations such as the Aurora Chamber of Commerce, the Aurora branch of the NAACP and the Rotary Club of Aurora. The members include high-profile names such as Skip Noe, the former Aurora city manager who is now chief financial officer of Community College of Aurora, and William Stuart, one of the district’s former deputy superintendents.

A second task force of Aurora district officials will create action plans for the different scenarios.

Both groups will meet through December.

The next public meetings where you can provide your input are:

  • Thursday, Sept. 6, 6 p.m.
    Vista PEAK Preparatory, 24500 E. 6th Ave.
  • Saturday, Sept. 15, 10 a.m.
    Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, 10100 E. 13th Ave.
  • Monday, Sept. 17, 6 p.m.
    Mrachek Middle School, 1955 S. Telluride St.