Chart(er)ing a new path

In Aurora, new charter school signals change in headwinds

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Karen Farquharson, center, meets with a prospective parent June 14 at Montessori del Mundo, a new charter school serving mostly Aurora Public Schools students. When del Mundo opens in August, it will be the first charter school to do so in APS's district in nearly a decade.

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.”

Montessori del Mundo teacher Julio Alas, center, meets with the Castillo family Saturday at an open house. Clockwise from center left is Jahn Sr., Jahn Jr., Yoli, and Yaretzi. Jahn Jr. will attend the school in the fall.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Montessori del Mundo teacher Julio Alas, center, meets with the Castillo family Saturday at an open house. Clockwise from center left is Jahn Sr., Jahn Jr., Yoli, and Yaretzi. Jahn Jr. will attend the school in the fall.

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.

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.