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?

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.