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Struggling Aurora elementary school may be turned over to a charter network

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)
Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

AURORA — In what would be a first for Aurora Public Schools, an elementary school that has struggled academically since the day it opened may soon be handed over to an established charter school network.

Opened in 2000, Fletcher Community School serves mostly poor Latino students on the Denver-Aurora border near the Stapleton neighborhood. Despite attempts to reboot the school in 2009 and 2013 and to make smaller fixes, student achievement on tests has chronically lagged behind district and state averages.

Just last year, only 2 percent of third graders met or exceeded state expectations on the inaugural PARCC English exam. At the same time, not a single third grader was proficient in math.

Superintendent Rico Munn told his school board at their meeting Tuesday that APS officials had done all they could to improve the school and it was time to look outside the district.

“We recognize we have not gotten done what we needed to get done,” Munn said after he thanked teachers from Fletcher in the audience for their hard work.

The board made no decision Tuesday but gave Munn the OK to begin talks with charter school operators, including Denver’s Rocky Mountain Prep, which outperformed many of Denver’s other elementary schools on state tests last year. A second charter network, Global Village, also has expressed interest in running Fletcher, Munn said.

The board would need to sign off on a contract this spring.

Even the slightest suggestion of closing a school can spark an emotional debate. Five years ago in far northeast Denver, community members felt the district’s closure of schools as part of a sweeping improvement plan were ill-advised and shifted blame to the wrong people. Opposition to charter schools from teachers unions is also likely to be an issue.

Munn’s plan would take away some of the sting by having the charter school start small by taking over a grade level or two at a time, with its own principal. The rest of the school would remain under district control as the charter expands. It would also get a new principal.

If Munn’s recommendation becomes a reality, it would be a monumental shift for a school district that has historically been viewed as anti-charter, and a new wrinkle in Munn’s evolving school improvement efforts.

Aurora’s charter school policies are considered friendlier now under Munn’s nearly three-year-old administration. This is the first time the inner-suburban district has considered using charters for school improvement, a strategy used in urban districts such as Denver, Chicago and New York.

Since 2009, Denver Public Schools has shuttered or consolidated 48 of its lowest performing schools and opened 76 new ones. Of those, seven charter schools were opened to replace district-run schools, a district spokesman said. In some instances, new district-run programs were co-located with charters.

A 2014 report by the Denver-based Donnell-Kay Foundation found that this strategy more than doubled the number of Denver students who had access to a high-performing school. (Chalkbeat is a grantee of the foundation.)

Similarly, research found that New York City students improved academically after the city in 2002 started closing some 160 schools and replacing them with 500 new smaller district-run schools and 180 charter schools.

Previously, Munn had dismissed charter schools as replacements for the district’s many low performing schools because of a lack of available buildings. But because Fletcher is half-full, Munn said a district-run school and charter school could share that space for a short time.

Nora Flood, president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, praised Munn’s proposal.

“I think this is an acknowledgement that we have to be creative in making sure kids and families have high-quality options, and that the work of turning around a chronic low performing school is extremely difficult,” she said. “Starting a new quality school is easier. And I hope other districts look to this as an example.”

Emily Dorn in her classroom at Rocky Mountain Prep, a public elementary charter network in Denver.
Emily Dorn in her classroom at Rocky Mountain Prep, a public elementary charter network in Denver.
Denver Post Archive

Not everyone in Aurora is on board.

Nearly a dozen teachers from Fletcher pleaded for one more chance Tuesday. They said their principal, Jennifer Kimpson, had created a toxic atmosphere that led to high teacher turnover. About half the staff left last year. Five teachers already have left this year.

“We’re not a staff that doesn’t want to work hard and move forward,” said Carla Chavez, an English language development teacher. “We just need really good leadership.”

Kimpson, in a statement, defended her decisions.

“I understand that some staff members have voiced concerns about previous decisions made at Fletcher and the potential changes that lie ahead,” she said. “While I am empathetic to the response about the impact this may have, I am extremely proud of the hard work and dedication of my staff and stand by our commitment to support our students, families and community.”

Some teachers also echoed a frequent criticism that charter schools don’t serve neighborhood students, instead cherry-picking those with the best test scores.

But Munn told the school board that for a charter school to open at the Fletcher campus it must agree to enroll students who live in the school’s current attendance boundary as well as help run a program for students with autism. The charter authorizer also would need to give preference to current staff when hiring teachers.

James Cryan, CEO of Rocky Mountain Prep, said Wednesday it was too early to discuss specifics but pointed to the fact that his two schools in Denver already serve mostly poor students and that one of his campuses will run a special education center next fall.

He also said he would “guarantee an interview to any teacher who wanted to build an amazing school in that neighborhood.”

Cryan declined to discuss what sort of conditions he would want from APS but said, “We’re really excited to meet with some of the community in that neighborhood to build relationships and hear the dreams that they have for their children.”

Kirk Loadman-Copeland, president of the Global Village charter network, declined to comment. Global Village is a much larger charter network than Rocky Mountain Prep and operates schools along the Front Range.

Update: This article has been updated to better represent Rocky Mountain Prep’s performance on state tests.

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