Feeling flexible

How five Aurora schools in an “innovation zone” are making budget decisions to meet their own needs

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Crawford Elementary School Principal Jenny Passchier observed a writing lesson in October 2015.

When Aurora Public Schools went looking for ways to save money earlier this year, one casualty was a district-wide contract for a service that provides a translator on the phone when one is not available in person.

The decision could have hurt Crawford Elementary School, where students speak about 35 languages and the service is used at least weekly— more at the start of the school year.

But Principal Jenny Passchier was not without options. As one of five schools that comprise Aurora Public Schools’ year-old innovation zone, Crawford has greater autonomy from district rules and budgeting decisions.

So when school resumed a couple of weeks ago, families at the five innovation zone schools got phone calls they could understand because leaders of the schools chose to keep paying for the translation and drop other district services to make up the difference.

“It’s very critical that we have some way to get ahold of our families,” Passchier said. “Especially in maybe more informal situations. We don’t always have translators that are readily available in person, so that was a critical piece that we needed to keep.”

That decision provides a window into what autonomy looks like in Aurora’s innovation zone, Superintendent Rico Munn’s biggest reform bet to date to lift achievement in a district with a challenging student population and poor academic track record.

With the innovation zone, Aurora officials are turning to a school model that other districts across the state and country have tried, with mixed results. Innovation status provides schools charter school-like autonomy, but the schools are operated by the district instead of independently.

The five schools in northwest Aurora started rolling out their innovation plans last school year.

Taking advantage of the state’s innovation law, APS officials created the zone to give schools greater flexibility from some state laws, union or district policies so principals could govern things like curriculum, hiring practices, school calendars and budgets in ways that might improve achievement at their schools.

Last year, in the first year of innovation status, district officials worked with principals of the five schools in the zone to figure out what district services they could do without, and what extra services they wanted to pay for with the money they might have instead.

Principals started by looking at what their school needed help with and then district officials worked with them to analyze how well the existing services worked.

In the case of the TeleLanguage service, district officials calculated that the average district school used the translation service for about 909 minutes, or about 15 hours, per school year. But each of the five schools in the innovation zone used the service for about 2,978 minutes per school year — about three times as often as the average district school.

After the analysis, the five schools decided to drop several services, including some from the district’s human resources department, and in exchange the schools were given about $500,000 extra in the 2017-18 budget.

How the money is being spent

  • Translation services, $14,000
  • Health Sciences Academy at Aurora Central, $30,000
  • College and career services, $30,000
  • Parent support budget for Student Engagement Advocate, $5,000
  • Talent acquisition and marketing budget, $40,000
  • Three full-time positions, $305,189
  • Individual school supports: Crawford, $20,000; Paris, $20,000; Boston K-8, $20,000; Aurora West, $30,000; Aurora Central, $36,000

“I led all five principals through the process of evaluating the needs of their schools,” said Lamont Browne, executive director of autonomous schools, including the innovation zone. “My approach was very much facilitating what ideas they had for who they were.”

As a zone, the five schools created three new positions with the extra $500,000. The schools hired a student engagement advocate to help communicate with families and improve student attendance (a position that would no longer exist at the district level); a director of instruction and leadership development; and a director of talent and acquisition to pick up some of the district HR department’s traditional duties.

The woman hired for that last role already has helped the five schools fill positions that still were open as school started.

Passchier described the budget redesign process as collaborative and said she spent a lot of time reflecting on her school’s needs.

“We were able to identify what are the zone-wide themes that we can support, but also what are unique things we need at the school level,” Browne said.

Each school made ia case for its own funding needs. For instance, Aurora Central High School hired an additional student engagement advocate that would be dedicated just to the 2,000-student high school. One of the staff person’s primary responsibilities: helping improve poor attendance.

Passchier said Crawford staff wanted to continue some reading work they’d done with a grant that was ending. The school is now using about $5,000 to continue work with a consultant the school found helpful in teaching students to read.

Officials say it’s too early to know how well the redesigned budget is working for the schools, but Passchier said she’s already seeing benefits two weeks into the school year.

The director of student engagement, who will work with the five schools to help them engage families and students with a goal of increasing attendance, already has been at Crawford several times, Passchier said.

Browne said that if principals find other district services they want to reconsider or analyze as the school year unfolds, the budget for the five schools may change.

Correction: This post has been updated to reflect that the innovation schools dropped use of just some of the services from the district’s human resources department.

intent to apply

Five groups may present charter applications this year to open in Aurora

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Mauricio Jackson, from left, Raymond Hurley and Adrian Rocha sit in the gym at University Prep charter school before loading on the bus for the ride home.

Five groups have signaled their intent to apply to open a charter school in the Aurora school district.

Based on the letters of interest, which were submitted last week, the five possible applications that Aurora could see this year include one high school, a Denver-grown charter school, and one tied to a national charter management organization.

Groups are required to submit a letter of intent a month before they submit a full application. In Aurora Public Schools, the deadline for applications is March 9.

District officials and two committees would review the applications that are submitted and present a recommendation to the Aurora school board before a vote in June. The earliest schools would open would be fall 2019.

Last year the district received only one application from a charter network that was invited to apply. That was for a DSST school, the high-performing Denver charter network, that is approved to open its first Aurora school in the fall of 2019. Based on this year’s letters of intent, there could be five applications.

Denver-based charters have started to express interest in moving to the suburbs as the low-income families they serve leave the city and as the Denver district slows the pace at which it seeks new schools. The national network KIPP is one charter network looking at possible suburban locations, though KIPP leadership won’t make a decision until this summer about where and didn’t submit a letter of intent to Aurora this round.

Here is a look at each of the five proposed schools with links to their letters of intent:

budding issue

Aurora superintendent says no to charter school locating near marijuana shop

Students of Vega Collegiate Academy in Aurora, Colo. Photo provided by Vega Collegiate Academy.

Update: The State Board of Education on Feb. 15 dismissed an appeal from Vega Collegiate Academy and told the school to go through the mediation process outlined in its contract with the district.

A charter school looking to move out of a church basement as it expands into more grades next year has halted its plans after the Aurora school district rejected the school’s desired location — near a pot shop.

City and district officials say it’s the first time the issue has come up in Aurora since marijuana retail businesses began opening in the fall of 2014.

State law prevents marijuana stores from opening within 1,000 feet of a school, but it doesn’t address schools opening near existing marijuana businesses. Vega Collegiate Academy’s contract with the district states the superintendent must approve any relocation. In this case, he didn’t.

Vega officials had already spent $40,000 on traffic studies, building plans, and deposits for the space at Colfax and Galena, about a mile from its current location in a church in northwest Aurora. Many parents had seen some plans and were excited about the expansion and larger space that might allow for more programming such as yoga or art.

Charter school officials appealed the denial – first to the school district and now to the State Board of Education. The final purchase of the site, and the remodeling that would have had to taken place to have students move in this fall, are on hold.

Kathryn Mullins, the founder and executive director of Vega, told the school board last week that the denial sends a bad message to the school’s students.

“Your denial of our space has told our children and families that it’s O.K. to live there, just not to go to school there,” Mullins said. “That is unacceptable.”

Because of the pending legal challenge, Aurora Public School officials said they would not comment on the denial. But in a letter to the school, Superintendent Rico Munn said the location – 300 feet from a marijuana dispensary – raises concerns. In trying to reconsider his decision, he noted he reviewed parent support letters, maps, crime data, and research about crime near marijuana dispensaries.

“I continue to have concerns,” Munn’s letter states. “I have not found anything to change my original denial.”

Vega school officials said that finding a location for the school was “a Herculean accomplishment in Colorado’s tight commercial market,” according to appeal documents.

The proposed building, a three-story retail building most recently housing a barber shop, is next to a Dollar General and was attractive in part, because it is close to where families of current students live and because of the large size.

“Our children deserve to go to a quality school close to their home,” Mullins told the board. “Our children and families should not be punished because of where they live or what facilities currently exist in our community.”

Proposed location at 10180 E. Colfax Ave.

Vega opened in August, enrolling almost 100 kindergarten and fifth graders. The plan is to expand by two grade levels a year until the school serves kindergarten through eighth grade. A high percentage of families in the northwest Aurora area live in poverty — a population Vega officials want to serve.

The proposed school site on Colfax has an entrance in the back that opens south onto a parking lot so that students would not have to enter from Colfax. An alleyway connects the parking lot to a strip mall with a Starbuds dispensary whose entrance faces west.

Reached on Friday, Brian Ruden, one of the owners of the Starbuds pot shop, said he was not aware of the possibility of a school relocating there.

In Denver, analysis done by the city and by the Denver Post in 2016 found more than 20 schools that are located within 1,000 feet of a marijuana store. In most cases, the schools moved in after the marijuana shop.

DPS officials did not respond to a request for comment about how they make decisions for school locations near marijuana shops.

The connection between crime and marijuana has been contentious and definitive evidence does not exist.

The 1,000-foot buffer was created by the state in 2012 after federal officials sent letters to medical marijuana shops informing them that they would enforce federal drug laws near schools. Federal prosecutors have generally followed a policy of not going after businesses that follow state law, but it’s not clear how aggressive the current administration will be on imposing federal enforcement in states that have legalized marijuana sales.

Vega employees, parents, and community members also spoke to the Aurora school board Tuesday about the decision. Mullins, the founder, said more than 200 parents, employees, and community members packed the board meeting, many with signs in support of Vega’s relocation. Thirty-five people signed up to speak, but because of the lengthy list, the school board limited the speakers to four.

“It would be very close to my home and so would make life a lot easier for me as an older person raising kids,” one grandmother told the school board.

The woman, who said she has lived in the neighborhood for decades, said she knows the area has a bad reputation, but said locating a school in a building that has often been empty could help change that.

Another mother, Arely Suarez, who said her fifth-grade daughter attends the school, told the school board in Spanish that the students need the bigger space.

“The kids have a right to a good education,” Suarez said. “As far as the marijuana dispensaries, this is a factor at the state level, it’s not just a factor that is affecting the Aurora school district.”

The legal challenge the state must first consider is whether it has jurisdiction for the appeal. Vega officials asked for the appeal, saying the district is imposing unreasonable conditions on the charter school.

But the Aurora district argued in filings that they have authority over the decision. The filings state the state board does not have jurisdiction because the superintendent, not the Aurora school board, made the decision, and because the dispute is not an unreasonable condition. The district argues the charter school should first remedy the conflict according to a process outlined in their contracts that would include mediation.

Either process could stretch out for months.

This story was updated to reflect more accurate information about the building.