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Aurora OKs boundary lines for new school; most students will be behind grade level

An artist's rendering of the front of Aurora Public School's new school that is expected to open next year. The school will serve preschool through eighth graders at 6th Avenue and Airport.
An artist's rendering of the front of Aurora Public School's new school that is expected to open next year. The school will serve preschool through eighth graders at 6th Avenue and Airport.
Courtesy Aurora Public Schools

The Aurora Public Schools Board of Education last week set a broad attendance boundary for its new combined elementary and middle school, which they hope will alleviate pressure from some of its most overcrowded west-side schools.

But in an effort to also save the ethnic and socioeconomic diversity at two high achieving schools in the southern part of this Denver suburb, the district is creating a school where most students will enroll behind grade level in math and language arts.

The unanimous vote capped a sixth month community engagement process and begins a new one that will likely include staff changes at nine of the districts elementary and middle schools and some services for students who will be relocated to a new school.

The new school, which will serve about 820 preschool through eighth grade students in its first year, is being built in part to curb overcrowding at schools like Tollgate Elementary and Vista PEAK Exploratory P-8. The district also hopes to strengthen its ties with the Buckley Air Force Base community. Students who live on base will predominantly attend the new school. And Aurora officials are also using the occasion to develop a new school model that requires teachers to use strength-based classroom tactics and promote “academic resiliency.”

At least half of the students who are expected to attend the new combined elementary and middle school will be below grade-level in language arts and math, according to a sample compiled by Aurora officials. They will also be mostly Latino and poor.

Which such a composition, the new school is likely to join several of the district’s existing schools on the state’s accountability clock. Those schools are on-watch for low student performance on state exams. If they don’t improve in enough time, they may face sanctions.

But the school’s leader believes the strength-based and academic resiliency model that she and a team of teachers, district officials, and community members are developing is an advantageous solution.

“Learning is hard,” said Carrie Clark, the school’s principal. “We’re gonna tell all of our kids that. But in this building, we’re going to teach you these skills so when something is hard, you can get through it and come out the other side.”

The school will be located at East Sixth Avenue and Airport Road. The boundary runs north from Alameda Avenue to Interstate 70 and east from Sable Road to Picadilly Road.

“The new school will help, but by no means will it solve all of our problems,” said Anthony Sturges, Aurora Public School’s chief operations officer.

Nearly 10 percent of APS schools are at or above capacity, while another 38 percent are at 90 percent capacity. And according to district projections, by 2017 every desk in every high school will be filled by a student.

The elementary and middle schools that will see the biggest shift in students are also among the district’s largest. Elkhart and Tollgate elementary schools and Vista PEAK Exploratory P-8 are each expected to lose more than 100 students. That means changes in budgets and human resources.

“When you lose students, you lose staff,” said Mary Lewis, an APS board member at a meeting earlier this month.

And that’s caused some parents and teachers, especially at Vista PEAK Exploratory, to worry.

Stacey Ivey, a parent and teacher at Vista PEAK Exploratory, told the school board before the new boundaries were approved that she had three questions about the forthcoming boundary changes. How as the district planning to support students either relocate to a new school or don’t? How will the district communicate staff reductions at schools? And will there be special enrollment opportunities for VISTA Peak Exploratory students entering the seventh or eighth grade?

Superintendent Rico Munn said at the time he was aware of the concerns and that they would be addressed once the boundary zones were set.

One group of parents Munn and his team won’t have to worry about upsetting are those at the Murphy Creek and Aurora Frontier P-8 schools. That’s because the new boundary lines keep their racially and socioeconomically diverse schools intact, as those parents requested — loudly — during the community engagement process.

“We’re 40 percent Caucasian, 30 percent Black, and 30 percent Hispanic,” said Chris Capron, an assistant principal at Murphy Creek, at the school board meeting when the boundaries were discussed. “That’s why they’re going to Murphy Creek.”

If the mostly white neighborhood kids were to go to a different school, he said, “it would completely change the culture of our school. And we don’t want that.”

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