AURORA — Nestled on the second floor of a nondescript shopping mall with tenants that include a prepaid mobile phone service provider, laundromat, and barbershop, this suburb’s newest school, Montessori del Mundo, was buzzing with the trappings of the first day of school. Except that’s still several weeks away.
Parent Jahn Castillo Sr. grilled his son’s teacher, Julio Alas, while 7-year-old Jahn Jr., played with a puzzle of the map of Australia.
“He likes puzzles,” Alas pointed out. “And this puzzle of Australia can launch into an entire lesson of the continent if that’s what your son wants to learn.”
Students at Montessori del Mundo, like most other schools that use the Montessori model, will learn at their own pace, guided by a team of teachers and a rubric that, similar to the new Common Core State Standards that Colorado has adopted, emphasizes a deeper learning of core numeracy and language.
But there is something unique about this Montessori school — besides its dual language instruction. When Montessori del Mundo opens Aug. 18 it will be the first charter school to open within the Aurora Public Schools boundaries since 2008.
“Opening up a school is like taking a leap of faith,” said the school’s founder and director Karen Farquharson. “People have to have faith you’re going to open and educate their children. You have to have faith they’re going to enroll and show up.”
While Denver Public Schools has led the way in opening and expanding charters in the metro area as part of a strategy to expand opportunities for low-income students, APS — with similarly high levels of poverty and students of color — turned inward and allowed the nationwide movement to largely pass it over.
For years the suburban school district east of Denver was known as being “openly hostile,” toward charter schools, said Rob Miller, principal of Aurora’s Vanguard Classical Academy charter school.
His first charter application in 2006 was rejected by the school district’s Board of Education, for a laundry list of reasons — including, Miller said, that the board simply did not want the school in their backyard.
The State Board of Education overturned APS’s rejection and the school opened in 2007.
“Historically it’s been tough,” Miller said. “But more recently [APS] been much more friendly.”
Not only did APS grant Miller’s school an “easy” charter renewal, a board made up of mostly new members granted an expansion and the Classical Academy will open a second campus with a high school in the fall.
Miller credits updated state laws regarding charter schools and the attitudes of new board members in Aurora for the evolving relationship between the district and its charter schools. Further, he believes his school and the district’s five other charters schools have earned the board’s trust.
“It’s worked both ways,” he said. “We’ve proven to them that we have a common interest in educating Aurora students. I think we’ve proven we want to be a partner on equal grounds with them.”
In an interview earlier this year, Aurora’s superintendent Rico Munn, who marks his first year leading the district in July, said he’s “indifferent” to charter schools. He said that he’s happy to consider any new school that might be able to meet a need in the district but recognized APS can’t provide the support — and maybe more importantly the space like DPS has for its growing charter networks — to new schools.
“We’re not there, yet,” Munn said.
Farquharson said that the difficulty of finding a building for a charter school in Aurora should not be underestimated. Because of the difficulty finding a building and upgrading it, Farquharson had to delay the opening of the school by a year.
“Delaying had an impact on a lot of people,” she said. Her teaching staff had to find new jobs and students needed to be enrolled in different programs.
Nevertheless, Farquharson recognizes the changing culture toward charter school and can rattle off nearly a dozen names of APS officials who have come to her aid — part voluntarily, part because she sub-contracts some of their services.
Still, because of certain district policies around funding pre-school and distributing Title I funds, Farquharson decided to charter her school through the state instead of APS.
Farquharson said during its first five years, the school is likely to receive $2.5 million more directly from the state than if she were to charter through APS.
“We really want to be a part of APS, and they’ve asked us to reauthorize with them in five years,” she said. “We’ll wait and see how the policies change.”
Until then, she said she and her school are committed to the students of Aurora Public Schools. Between spreading word of mouth, passing out flyers at local grocery stores, and exercising plain hardihood, Montessori del Mundo is set to open with nearly 150 students split between seven teachers, all bilingual and certified to teach Montessori, on their first day.
According to early data, nearly 73 percent have self-reported they either already attend or would attend an APS school.
Saturday’s meet and greet was just the first of many summer events Farquharson and her team have planned.
Parents will be invited to help build the campus’ playground. There will be practice school nights. And teachers will visit students at their homes. It’s all a plan to help create a relationship for students, teachers, and parents so the first day of school isn’t that bad, Farquharson said.
“Education is relational,” she said.