Looking ahead

Aurora school district looking at enrollment challenges, sees need for new plan

A HOPE Online student works during the day at an Aurora learning center. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

Aurora Public Schools is seeing the largest decline of students in decades, and it is likely that the enrollment numbers will not improve for five more years, school officials said on Tuesday.

Even as the student population drops, the decline is not uniform across the city, and the recovery may not be either, officials said. The largest loss of students is in the northwest corner of the city, an area of high poverty, while most growth is likely to be in the eastern portion of the district, near Bennett, officials said.

Those trends, derived from the district’s daily tracking of enrollment and presented to the school board on Tuesday, will present a set of different challenges in each part of the district and the district’s long-term strategic plan for addressing them expired this year.

“A question the entire community is going to have to answer is how can we rest assured that we’re going to be able to provide educational opportunities to all kids, understanding that we have some pretty dramatic differences,” said Anthony Sturges, chief operating officer for the district.

Enrollment for the district, according to numbers from the end of September, is about 41,250. That is down from a peak of 42,569 in 2015.

Officials said they expect the decline to reverse in about five years, giving them time to think and plan for the kind of district they would like to see emerge out of the enrollment trends.

Superintendent Rico Munn said he will seek information and advice to develop a strategic plan to guide the district through the transition. He proposed a set of seven questions to put to the community, including how to plan for or fund new buildings or how to modify existing ones. With the projections, it is possible the district will have to find ways to pay for new school buildings while also finding ways to cut costs at underutilized ones elsewhere.

Board members agreed with the superintendent’s proposed questions and lauded his proposal as proactive.

Last year, the school board had to make budget cuts mid-year as enrollment numbers dropped beyond what was expected. The district then went through a community process to find ways to shrink the 2017-18 budget by as much as $31 million. Ultimately because state funding was more generous than expected, not all of those budget cuts were made, but many schools still had to make staffing cuts for the current school year.

This year, because the enrollment drops were closer to what was predicted, no mid-year budget cuts are expected.

When the district first started seeing a significant drop in enrollment, officials were hopeful that the trend would only last a couple of years. Historically, an enrollment decline in Aurora schools has always reversed the next year. But that is not what officials are seeing this time.

Aurora Public Schools enrollment trends.

They attribute the decline this time to a variety of factors, including a lower birth rate, the increased cost of housing for families and an increase in the number of school options not managed by the district. But the geographical variation in the losses has much to do with development, which has varied throughout the city, and the trends are expected to continue.

In northwest Aurora, near the border with Denver, planned redevelopment will market to young professionals, not necessarily families. That, along with a continued increase in property values in that area, will likely keep pushing families out, especially many who live there and are of low-income status. Some schools in that area are still over 90 percent filled, but are not as overcrowded as other schools in the district.

Meanwhile near Aurora’s eastern boundary with Bennett, officials said there are two large housing developments being planned.

“We have not much out there and Bennet has nothing out there, and they’re talking about dropping 10,000 homes in the next 10 years,” said Superintendent Rico Munn. “We need to be thoughtful and creative about how we respond to those kinds of challenges and plan ahead for it, so that we’re not putting kids on buses for two hours to get to a school.”

Between 2010 and 2016, the population within the Aurora Public School boundaries increased for all age groups, except for children 0 to 5 years old, which saw a 7 percent decrease in population. It was not just Aurora that saw this decline, officials said. A lower birth rate during the recession affected communities across the state and the country.

But increased housing costs — up almost 40 percent in Aurora in less than 10 years — have also driven people out of the district, as well as some neighboring communities.

Most troubling to officials: enrollment increases at the same time to Aurora schools not under the district’s control.

Charter schools operating within the district are enrolling more students every year and the district expects that to continue. In 2016, charter schools had 4,399 students. This school year, charters have an estimated 5,027 students. By 2021, charter schools are expected to be educating more than 6,000 Aurora students, officials said.

Some of those schools, like HOPE Online and Roca Fuerte Academy, are authorized by other school districts.

At the same time, technological advances in the next decade could make online options attractive for more families, officials said, meaning the district should also consider district-run alternative models.

“Choice is here and choice will continue to be here,” said Superintendent Munn. “The question for us in large part is how much of this does this board manage? How much of this does this board get to really own and decide how that will be able to partner with this district?”

The 7 proposed questions to consider:

  • 1. What does the system of schools that serves students in APS boundaries look like to ensure equitable opportunities for all our studnets?
  • 2. What does the system of traditional schools look like to ensure equity of educational opportunities across the entire district in service of APS 2020 goals and goals of future strategic plans?
  • 3. How should APS meet the demands of growing enrollment in some parts of the district, particularly in areas with new developments?
  • 4. How should APS respond to schools that are seeing declining enrollment as a result of a number of factors?
  • 5. What types of instructional opportunities should the district offer for students?
  • 6. How do we plan for and fund new facilities or modify existing facilities to support that system and in light of anticipated and unanticipated changes?
  • 7. What is the relationship between APS and charter schools?

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.

Plus

Aurora school introduces out-of-the-box redesign with more electives, more teacher collaboration

Students at Aurora Hills Middle School work on creating huts in their STEM class. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

With new offerings of elective classes, a full day every week for teachers to train and plan together, and lots of positive feedback already, school leaders at Aurora Hills Middle School are optimistic about their school redesign.

Officials want it to be a win-win-win solution for the struggling school.

When the principal at Aurora Hills Middle School reviewed teacher surveys in the past, one thing stood out: Teachers were unhappy about their schedule.

Although it’s not uncommon for teachers to lament a lack of time for planning or teaching, an audit of Aurora Hills last year showed its teachers had a higher course load than in other district schools, higher-than-average class sizes, and less instructional time.

So, Principal Marcella Garcia jumped at the idea of working with consultant School by Design to redesign her school’s schedule. School by Design’s focus is on providing data about how schools use their time and helping schools find better ways to do things without requiring more staff or money.

“They really did help me to think differently,” Garcia said. “And the effect we can have is huge. We could have continued on, but I don’t know if I would have thought so outside of the box.”

The consultant has been working with all middle schools in the district as well as some high schools, but each school leader can choose what changes to make, and Aurora Hills took an early initiative to make changes.

Under the changes this year, the approximately 850 students at Aurora Hills have a full day every week for special courses like music, health, technology, or STEM.

Students and educators refer to that as their Plus day, and students say it’s the fun part of their week. Some students, like those requiring special education and English language learner services, have access that they wouldn’t have had in the past to take such classes.

While students in one grade level have their Plus day, their teachers spend the full day in training, led by teacher leaders, and in joint planning time.

So far, they’ve been using the time to look at how they grade and to share ideas about teaching. They’ve also said they want to spend time looking at attendance and behavior data, and learning how to teach social and emotional skills throughout the day.

Teachers have mostly responded positively, Assistant Principal John Buch said.

“One teacher shared, during their reflections, that in her years of teaching, she had not had an opportunity before to collaborate with a teammate and go in depth in planning like they did last week,” Buch said. “We also heard, I would say several comments, about the freedom they felt when planning isn’t cut off by a bell.”

Teacher Cynthia Krull signed up last year to help design the teachers’ new time.

“I really truly fell in love with the idea,” Krull said.

This year, she is a Plus teacher planning hands-on projects for students who take her STEM class once a week. Last week seventh-graders were designing a hut that would help them survive a set of given conditions while stranded on an island. As they worked in pairs to mesh their ideas of what a hut should do or what it might look like, while rushing to meet a deadline, the students clearly were relishing the challenge.

“They look forward to coming to that class,” Krull said.

Aurora Public Schools has been working with School by Design since 2017 to find ways to improve middle-school achievement without increasing spending. The consultant team is still working with a number of other Aurora schools this year, but officials said they expect Aurora Hills’ leaders can become in-house experts within the district, phasing out the need for the consultant, and helping other schools who want to keep thinking differently about their use of staff or time.

So far, the district has spent more than $146,000 on the consultant. District officials say the savings outweigh the cost.

At Aurora Hills, for instance, if teachers are able to have their professional development during the regular school day, the school can save on paying teachers for extra time on the clock or paying for substitutes to cover classes.

But there are also benefits that aren’t easy to quantify, such as giving teachers more time to work together. Or giving students more class offerings and more time to learn.

As part of the schedule, teacher teams also get a block period where students are in “flex time” which means two class teachers combine and split their students into groups and together provide extra help for those who might be falling behind, or give students a chance to delve deeper into a topic.

“Time is the most precious resource,” said Jack Shaw, the executive vice president of Schools by Design. “The win in schools is I’m able to get a bundle of benefit without any additional costs.”

This year, the consultant team will provide updated audit information, so that schools can track the impact of any changes they’ve made.

At Aurora Hills, Principal Garcia said she’s giving staff regular surveys to see how the changes are working. She’ll also be tracking staff turnover rates, and student achievement.

The school has received two consecutive years of low ratings from the state. Based on preliminary ratings released this week, Aurora Hills is in its third year of low performance. The school must improve before reaching five years of low state ratings, or risk state sanctions.

The Aurora district’s own plan for dealing with low-rated schools calls for the district to increasingly intervene in schools if ratings lag. District officials would have likely directed changes this year if Aurora Hills hadn’t created a redesign of its own.

School leaders said they are hopeful that the changes they’re rolling out will make a difference.

“We are encouraged,” said Buch. “We are early in the process, but we have a group of teachers and staff and students working pretty relentlessly to change outcomes. We believe that’s the right work.”