narrow approval

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

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep's first charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

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.

turnaround

Aurora recommends interventions in one elementary school, while another gets more time

Students during PE class at Lyn Knoll Elementary School in 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Aurora school district officials on Tuesday will recommend turning over management of some operations at one of their elementary schools to an outside management company.

The school, Lyn Knoll Elementary, is located in northwest Aurora near 2nd Avenue and Peoria Street and serves a high number of students from low-income families, with 4 percent of students identified as homeless. The school was one of three Aurora schools that earned the lowest rating from the state in 2017.

That rating automatically flags the school under a district process for school interventions. The process directs district officials to consider a number of possible improvement plans, including closure or turning the school over to a charter school.

Lyn Knoll has had good rankings in recent years before slipping dramatically in the past year, a change that put it on the turnaround list. The district did not recommend intervening at Paris Elementary, even though that school has been in priority improvement for years and will face state sanctions if it has one more year without improvement.

Annual ratings for Lyn Knoll Elementary

  • 2010: Improvement
  • 2011: Improvement
  • 2012: Performance
  • 2013: Improvement
  • 2014: Priority Improvement
  • 2016: Performance
  • 2017: Turnaround
Colorado Department of Education

The board will discuss the recommendation on Tuesday and vote on the school’s fate next month. In November, four union-backed board members who have been critical of charter schools won a majority role on the district’s school board. This will be their first major decision since taking a seat on the board.

In September, Superintendent Rico Munn had told the school board that among January’s school improvement recommendations, the one for Paris would be “the most high-profile.” A month later the district put out a request for information, seeking ideas to improve Aurora schools.

But in a board presentation released Friday, district officials didn’t give much attention to Paris. Instead, they will let Paris continue its rollout of an innovation plan approved two years ago. Officials have said they are hopeful the school will show improvements.

The recommendation for Lyn Knoll represents more drastic change, and it’s the only one that would require a board vote.

The district recommendation calls for replacing the current principal, drafting a contract for an outside company to help staff with training and instruction, and creating a plan to help recruit more students to the school.

Documents show district officials considered closing Lyn Knoll because it already has low and decreasing enrollment with just 238 current students. Those same documents note that while officials are concerned about the school’s trends, it has not had a long history of low ratings to warrant a closure.

In considering a charter school conversion, documents state that there is already a saturation of charter schools in that part of the city, and the community is interested in “the existence of a neighborhood school.” Two charter networks, however, did indicate interest in managing the school, the documents state.
The district recommendation would also include stripping the school’s current status as a pilot school.

Lyn Knoll and other schools labeled pilot schools in Aurora get some internal district autonomy under a program created more than 10 years ago by district and union officials.

Because Lyn Knoll is a pilot school, a committee that oversees that program also reviewed the school and made its own recommendation, which is different from the district’s.

In their report, committee members explained that while they gave the school low marks, they want the school to maintain pilot status for another year as long as it follows guidance on how to improve.

Among the observations in the committee’s report: The school doesn’t have an intervention program in place for students who need extra help in math, families are not engaged, and there has not been enough training for teachers on the new state standards.

The report also highlights the school’s daily physical education for students and noted that the school’s strength was in the school’s governance model that allowed teachers to feel involved in decision making.

Read the full committee report below.



one-time money

Aurora school district has more money than expected this year

Jordan Crosby and her students in her kindergarten class at Crawford Elementary on February 17, 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Brent Lewis/The Denver Post)

The Aurora school district will have a slight influx of one-time money to spend on teacher pay and curriculum upgrades after seeing higher than expected increases in property tax revenue and accurately forecasting a decline in student enrollment.

The district received almost $9 million more in revenue than the $341.4 that was budgeted, and started the year with almost $11 million more than expected left over from last year.

The school board for Aurora Public Schools gave the budget changes initial approval at a board meeting Tuesday night.

Last year, when Aurora was reassessing its budget in January, officials found that they had to make mid-year cuts. This year’s mid-year changes, however, were good news, officials said, as the district finds itself with more money than they planned to have.

“In large part it’s because we hit our projections about enrollment,” Brett Johnson, the district’s chief financial officer, told the school board. “Because we hit it right on the dot, a lot of what we are going to discuss is good news.”

Aurora schools recorded an official student count this fall of 40,920 preschoolers through 12th graders. That’s down from 41,797 students counted last year.

It’s a drop that district officials were expecting this time.

The district also brought in more property tax revenues than expected.

Johnson said district officials based their projections for the current school year’s budget on a property tax increase of about 9 percent. But revenues from property values actually increased by almost twice that amount. Typically when districts get more money from local property taxes, their share of state money goes down, making it a wash, but because Aurora has mill levy overrides, it can take advantage of some of the increase.

Robin Molliconi, the administrative division supervisor in the Arapahoe County Assessor’s Office, said that while there has been new construction and development within the school district’s boundaries, most of the increased revenue is a result of higher assessed values of existing properties.

As budget officials in the district closed out last school year’s budget, they also found that there was more money left over than they expected. Johnson said district leaders believe that may have been a result of district staff spending more cautiously at the end of last year when officials were expecting big budget cuts.

If the school board gives the budget amendments final approval at their next board meeting, the district will use $5 million of the unexpected dollars to upgrade curriculum, $3.1 million to give teachers a pay raise that the district had previously agreed to with the union, and $1.8 million to launch a pilot to try to better fill hard-to-staff positions.

Johnson said some of the money will also go to the district’s reserve account that had been spent down in previous years when enrollment had dropped much more than expected.

Clarification: More information was added to the story to explain that Aurora has mill levy overrides.