Aurora seeks to close charter school, saying it is failing special needs students

Aurora’s superintendent is asking the district’s school board to close one of the city’s newest and highest-performing charter schools, saying it is not adequately serving students with special needs.

A district special education consultant found that Vega Collegiate Academy was failing to provide required special education services, and that it inappropriately segregated students who have special needs or are English-language learners.

Vega leaders are disputing some of the district’s allegations, which were reported to the school board Tuesday night. School leaders apologized for not understanding certain policies and procedures, and asked for one more month to address the issues the district first brought to its attention in October.

Aurora Public Schools is recommending that the school board close Vega at the end of the academic year, and that the district be allowed to oversee the charter’s special education operations until then.

The board is expected to vote on Vega’s fate at their next meeting, on Feb. 19.

“We as a team want to work with charter schools,” Brandon Eyre, the district’s attorney, told the Aurora school board Tuesday night. “But we’re here in February still talking about this. To extend that timeline, in my opinion, just continues to not be a service to students.”

Eyre noted that before making this decision, district officials have gone back and forth for months with Vega in an attempt to clarify rules and resolve problems.

If the board votes to close the school, Vega can appeal the decision with the state.

District staff told the school board that Vega enrolled two students who had educational plans requiring placement in a special program, which Vega doesn’t have, and then did not re-evaluate those students to see if the school could properly provide services. According to the district, the school also did not have a licensed special education teacher for several months, failed to provide as much time as students required with a special education teacher, and segregated some students.

According to the district, the school put English learners and special education students together in one English class. Vega denies this, saying the class is a remedial English class with students who are grouped only by skill, and that it includes other “general education students.” Vega leaders said they had previously explained this, and then received a letter from the district saying it was no longer an issue.

District officials said the charter has corrected some of the matters, but stressed that certain students are still not receiving adequate services and that the school has not submitted a plan to make up the missed learning time for students as required by law.

Miguel In Suk Lovato, the vice chair for Vega’s school board, said there were miscommunications between the school and the district.

Some of the learning time missed, for instance, was just not recorded, but it did happen, he said. And when the school’s special education teacher left in November, Vega officials didn’t immediately notify the district of the departure and its plan to have the middle school principal take over those duties.

“We recognize there were errors made,” Lovato said. “We take full responsibility for those errors.”

Board member Dan Jorgensen said he is interested in finding a solution, particularly for the sake of other students at the school, adding, the situation is “not really acceptable, especially seeing the outcomes we’re seeing in your school.”

“Culpability rests with both parties, in my opinion only,” Jorgensen said of the district and the charter. “As an authorizer, I think the district has gotten better and better and better, but I think we can still get better.”

Vega, which opened in 2017 and is one of 10 charter schools that exist in Aurora Public Schools, currently enrolls 192 students in kindergarten, first grade, fifth grade and sixth grade. The school has been adding two grade levels per year until it serves students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Almost 20 percent of students have special needs, according to the school.

The school faced obstacles since the beginning. Early on, it failed to find a location to open the school on time. Then after it started up in a church basement, Vega thought it had found a perfect new space, but Aurora’s superintendent rejected the location because it was too close to a marijuana shop. The school has remained in the church basement for the time being.

Then this fall state data showed the school, in 2017-2018, its first year, managed to have the highest growth scores in the state for math. Now in its second year, Vega leaders believe their student performance will continue to outpace that of the district.

Jessica Racine, Vega’s middle school principal, who school officials point out is a licensed special education teacher who was able to step in to provide services, got emotional during Tuesday night’s hearing as she told the board about her conversations with parents.

Racine said parents of special needs students have asked Vega to give them a chance, even if the school can’t meet the children’s federally required Individualized Education Plan, because they’re desperate for a good school.

She also said parents are seeing results and thanking her. One parent of a fifth-grader, she said, told her the child can now read street signs for the first time.

“It makes my whole work real because they are seeing the changes in their kids,” Racine said.

The board meeting was packed with Vega parents and students. School board president Marques Ivey asked people not to sign up to speak to the board at the regular time at the beginning of the meeting, but most Vega families had left by the time there was another opportunity to speak later in the evening.

One mother of an 11-year-old at the school, Lilia Mendoza, spoke about the lack of high-performing schools in her neighborhood and said it was a matter of equity for students of color. She also questioned why the district wasn’t giving Vega more time to address its problems.

Mendoza said she has been part of early-childhood pilot programs, and that they are usually given more time — three to five years, she said — before a decision is made about a program’s future.

She said the students deserve the opportunity, adding, “If the school district doesn’t support them, who is going to support them?”