in the zone

Aurora officials moves forward with innovation plans, school board cautions for consensus

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
An Aurora Central High School student listens during his advanced science class in 2015.

Aurora school administrators are taking their first steps toward making Superintendent Rico Munn’s most ambitious school improvement strategy a reality, while the school board cautioned it won’t accept any sweeping changes without support from teachers and parents.

Munn’s plan is to use the state’s innovation schools law to create what he’s calling “ACTION Zones.” Clusters of schools will apply for waivers from district and state policies that will provide more flexibility over personnel, budget, curriculum and resources.

The idea is the schools will work together — mostly outside the district’s bureaucracy — to boost student achievement at some of the district’s lowest performing schools.

Aurora Public Schools, which is the largest school district on the state’s watch list for poor academic performance, has contracted with the education nonprofit Mass Insight Education to lead a variety of committees that will be tasked with redesigning up to five schools. Two of those committees began meeting last week.

The one-year contract with Mass Insight is for $600,000. APS may renew the contract for another two years at $600,000 annually.

Boston-based Mass Insight has worked with school districts across the country to improve chronically failing schools since 2010. During the last three years, Mass Insight helped the Jefferson Parish school district in Louisiana reduce its number of failing schools from 18 to four.

Mass Insight also has worked with the Colorado Department of Education since 2010. For the past three years, CDE has been a member of the nonprofit’s State Development Network, which helps state education departments craft and evaluate school improvement strategies.

While Munn is confident freeing his struggling schools of red tape is the best option for Aurora students, similar schools in Denver have produced mixed results. And costly consultants in other struggling school districts haven’t yielded the results state officials would want.

To win waivers in Colorado, the school committees must follow the state’s innovation school law, which requires proof of broad community support including a majority of a building’s teachers.

Still, school board members pressed Munn and officials from Mass Insight on building consensus for the school redesign plans at a meeting last week.

“If it’s a dictatorial process through a single individual, I don’t think the process will be viewed as authentic,” said board member Dan Jorgensen. “I will not vote for any plan that isn’t authentic.”

So far, only one school has been identified to participate in the district’s first ACTION Zone: Aurora Central High.

Aurora Central has been considered academically failing by the state for five years. The State Board of Education was supposed to level sanctions on the high school, which serves mostly Latino students from low-income homes, later this school year. However, legislation passed in the spring put a hold on the state’s accountability timeline.

Munn’s ACTION Zone plan is in part a pre-emptive strike to stave off state sanctions, which could include handing over low performing schools to charter authorizers or closing them. Munn sought and won the state board’s blessing to move forward with his plan this summer.

The APS administration is also considering including Boston K-8 and other primary schools that send students to Aurora Central as part of the plan.

Munn said he hopes to have detailed plans for the five schools to the school board for approval early next year. If the APS and state boards of education approve the plans, they’ll be rolled out for the 2016-2017 school year.

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.