DSST, Denver’s largest and fastest growing charter school network, wants to open two new schools by 2021 that would serve nearly 2,000 students — in Aurora.
That’s according to a formal proposal DSST submitted to Aurora Public Schools this month. The DSST charter application was the only one the district received by the annual deadline for charter school applications this month.
The application comes with a provision that the schools operate in buildings provided by the suburban school district. Space for charter schools in Aurora has been historically difficult to find, and the district has provided little to no support in helping them locate space — until now.
Superintendent Rico Munn last year offered to build DSST a new building, if the network would cover half the cost. Board members and existing charter school leaders questioned the superintendent on why this deal was offered to one charter school, excluding others. Charter schools are public schools receiving public tax dollars but operated by a board independent from a school district.
The Aurora school board has allowed Munn to continue discussions with DSST, but members cautioned that it did not mean there would be any guarantees and that final approval would wait until DSST went through the district’s charter approval process. Munn has said the deal is in part about connecting with a network that has a record of success on student achievement, as well as a way to offer more choices involving science and technology. The Aurora district has been working to improve student performance before potentially facing state sanctions next year.
Munn’s invitation to DSST to help with a building also stirred controversy over the district’s bond request in November, as some charter leaders and the union opposed or scaled back support for the measure.
Munn had proposed that the district and DSST split the cost of the new school building. The Aurora tax measure approved by voters in November included $12 million that would cover the district’s share. Leaders of charter schools already in Aurora questioned how fair it was that their funding requests were excluded from the bond proposal, while a Denver charter network would potentially get a new district-owned building.
DSST has said it would help with fundraising for the building, but wanted the district to take the lead in coming up with the rest of the funding. In Denver, the school district has provided space for the charter network’s schools.
The charter application did not give more information on funding for buildings, but did state that the district has committed to providing the facilities for the two new schools.
“DSST is excited and grateful for the initial commitment from Aurora to provide DSST facilities for two 6-12 campuses,” the application states.
The first school would open in 2019 and the second in 2021. Both would open serving 150 sixth graders, adding one grade level per year until they each served grades sixth through 12th.
In the application, DSST officials noted they have started outreach efforts in northwest Aurora, where the first school would open. They also noted that DSST schools across Denver already serve about 200 students who live in Aurora and who would like to “attend a DSST in their own communities.”
Some of those students, including one who said her parents drive her half an hour to school each day, attended a school board meeting in Aurora earlier this month to ask the board to consider approving the charter school.
At February’s board meeting, Aurora district officials said in an update about work on bond projects that DSST had started working with the district on preliminary plans for the new school building in northwest Aurora, so the district doesn’t build something “that won’t fit.”
“We are talking to them,” Amy Spatz, Aurora’s director of construction management and design, told the board. “We’re getting feedback early.”
As far as who would attend the schools, the application proposes that the DSST schools would be open-enrollment schools, meaning anyone in the district would be able to apply and attend. The school would provide an application form that families would fill out during a three-month window. If more students apply than the school has room for, the school would hold a lottery.
Like at other DSST schools, the application states the schools will have a goal of mirroring the overall demographic population of the district, including by enrolling at least 30 percent English language learners and 10 percent of students who are in special education.
Depending upon student and family need, DSST officials also noted they are interested in exploring the possibility of purchasing bus services from the district for their students.
The application will be reviewed by the district’s new Charter School Advisory Committee and District Accountability Committee before going to the school board for a final decision in June.