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.

terms of the deal

Aurora school board approves contract for district’s first DSST campus

Students at a campus of DSST, a charter network that is a big piece of Denver's "portfolio" approach to school management. (Denver Post file)

The Aurora school board on Tuesday night — in its last vote before new board members are sworn in — approved a contract with DSST Public Schools for the charter network’s first school outside of Denver.

The contract spells out enrollment and performance expectations, and upon request from Aurora school board members, ensures DSST will have representation from an Aurora resident on their own network governing board.

In June, the board approved DSST’s application to open four schools — two middle and two high schools — starting with one of each in the fall of 2019. The contract approved Tuesday is only for the first campus of a middle and high school.

During public comment, teachers, some parents and union leaders spoke to the board, as they have in past meetings, speaking against the DSST contract.

Among the speakers Tuesday was Debbie Gerkin, one of the newly elected school board members. Gerkin cited concerns with the plan to allow DSST to hire teachers who don’t yet have certifications, echoing a common criticism of charter schools.

“I appreciate there’s been so much hard work put into the DSST contact,” Gerkin said. “I ask that we continue to think about this.”

Board member Cathy Wildman asked the board if they would consider delaying the vote until the new board members are seated at the end of the month. A majority of current board members said they would not support a delay, noting they’ve spent more than a year working on learning about the DSST application and contract.

The school board first discussed the contract details at a meeting in October. At that time, board members asked district staff to go back to discussions with DSST to suggest that they commit to having someone from Aurora on their board of directors.

School board members asked questions about the details of the enrollment process such as whether there would be a preference for siblings, how student vacancies would be filled and whether the guidelines would really make the school demographics integrated.

According to the contract, DSST will give students in the surrounding neighborhoods, those served by elementary schools Rocky Mountain Prep, Paris, Crawford and Montview, first preference for half of the school’s open seats.

The remaining half will first go to any other Aurora students, but if seats are still available after that, students outside the district may enroll.

Enrollment numbers discussed in a separate presentation at the October board meeting show that the target area for the school, in northwest Aurora, is also the area with the largest declining enrollment. Schools in those neighborhoods have been near capacity, but not overcrowded like other schools in the district.

DSST will have a cap of enrolling no more than 450 students. An enrollment cap for charter schools in Aurora is standard, said Lamont Browne, the director of autonomous schools. In the first year, since the school will start with just sixth graders, the school anticipates enrolling 150 students. By April 1, DSST leaders must show the district that they’ve already enrolled at least 75 of those students.

A large section of the DSST contract spells out the district and school’s responsibilities in serving any students with special needs that may want to enroll at DSST.

The contract also includes a section that gives the district a right to close the school or deny a charter renewal if DSST earns a priority improvement rating from the state and doesn’t improve it after one year.

Recent contracts the Aurora school board approved for other charter schools also have requirements for performance, but not as stringent. The contract for The Academy of Advanced Learning, for instance, requires that school to improve after one year of earning a turnaround rating from the state. The turnaround rating is the lowest a school can get.

DSST has similar performance requirements in its contracts with Denver Public Schools allowing for a nonrenewal of a contract if a school has low ratings, but none of the Denver DSST schools have dropped to the lowest two categories of ratings. DSST schools, in fact, consistently are some of the state’s highest performing on state tests.

What the contract still doesn’t detail is a possible new name for Aurora’s DSST schools (the school originally was called the Denver School of Science and Technology) or how the district and the charter will split the cost of the building.

When Superintendent Rico Munn invited DSST to apply to open a school in Aurora, he offered to pay for half the cost of a new building for the charter school.

The bond voters approved in 2016 included money to pay for a new building for the charter school. The contract reiterates earlier commitments that both the district and the charter network must identify the money for a building by March 30.

A contract for the second 6-12 campus would be negotiated at a later time if the charter school meets performance requirements to move forward with opening the third and fourth schools.

Looking ahead

Union-backed candidates prevail in Aurora — and all sides downplay prospect of big immediate change

Union President Bruce Wilcox, far left, addressing four school board candidates: Debbie Gerkin, Kevin Cox, Kyla Armstrong-Romero and Marques Ivey, as they awaited election results Tuesday. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

One day after school board candidates backed by the teachers union swept into power in Aurora, the district superintendent and leaders of charter schools he recruited downplayed potential conflicts and committed to working with the new members.

Union leaders made similar comments Wednesday, expressing optimism that the newly elected members and Superintendent Rico Munn will forge a fruitful relationship.

The four candidates who will make up a majority on the seven-member school board have been critical of charter schools in interviews with Chalkbeat and candidate questionnaires. But in public comments, including during campaign forums, several of the candidates expressed openness to working with some charter schools depending on the circumstances.

That has left some uncertainty about what the election might mean for charter schools, which are a key piece of Munn’s recent reform efforts in Aurora, and the district’s strategies overall.

The newly elected school board members emphasized Tuesday they want to work with the existing leadership and aren’t planning major changes immediately.

Munn told Chalkbeat on Wednesday he needs to hear from the new board before contemplating any shifts to district priorities.

“In our reform strategy we’ve laid out at least nine different strategies that we’ve been implementing across different schools,” Munn said. “Our current board, and I’m sure our new board, may not like every single one of those. But that’s just an ongoing conversation we have to have.”

Put on notice by state education officials in 2010 for low performance, Aurora Public Schools had little choice but to embark on reforms to better serve its diverse population, which has large numbers of black and Latino students, and young refugees fleeing strife around the world.

Munn, hired in 2013, has overseen an approach the district calls “disruptive innovation.” Along with recruiting high-performing charters to the district, Aurora has adopted a new system for hiring meant to strengthen its principal corps, given schools more control over budgets and created an “innovation zone” providing schools within it greater freedom to experiment.

The district’s efforts have attracted interest from private foundations, education reform groups — and a gradually greater investment of attention and money in school board races, a trend that’s nearly a decade old in neighboring Denver.

Two years ago, reform groups from the left and right and a more engaged teachers union sought to influence the Aurora election. The result was split — two incumbents prevailed, and one of two conservative-backed reform candidates won.

Most of this year’s investment from the reform side came from an independent expenditure committee tied to Democrats For Education Reform. The reform community’s two preferred candidates —Miguel In Suk Lovato and Gail Pough — finished fifth and sixth in the race for the four seats. As of the last big campaign finance report deadline, a committee bankrolled by the teachers union had spent even more to help the union-endorsed slate, billed “Aurora’s A-Team.”

Union leadership and the board candidates on the winning slate have expressed concerns about Aurora Public Schools’ decision to close a struggling school and replace it with a charter school, Rocky Mountain Prep. Also coming in for their criticism: Munn’s invitation to DSST, a high performing charter network, to open in Aurora, and his offer to pay for half the cost of a new building.

The DSST deal is expected to be done after the current board votes on the final contract on Nov. 14 — their last meeting before the new board is sworn in.

Bill Kurtz, the CEO of DSST, said Wednesday the charter school network doesn’t have any concerns about working with board members elected as a union-backed slate.

“We’re excited to meet the new school board in Aurora, and excited about our work in Aurora,” Kurtz said. “Like any school board, we will work hard to start to build a strong relationship with the new board to collaborate so we can best serve students in Aurora … Our view of working with the school board in Aurora is no different today than it was yesterday.”

James Cryan, CEO of Rocky Mountain Prep, voiced a similar sentiment.

“I don’t have any concerns at this point,” Cryan said. “We’re proud to be a part of that community.”

Others who support some of Munn’s strategies are urging patience. Tyler Sandberg, a co-founder and senior policy adviser at Ready Colorado, a conservative education reform nonprofit that also invested in the race, said education reform policy discussions are in the early stages in Aurora.

“Charters are only just beginning to demonstrate to the community the quality they can bring,” Sandberg said. “I’m hopeful that the new board members are going to go to the community and realize how empowering some of these charter schools have been for these students. I’m hopeful schools like Rocky Mountain Prep and DSST are going to be able to make a pretty good impression.”

Sandberg also said that reform groups were at a disadvantage against unions which have “built in ground game and funding structure.”

The state teachers union, Colorado Education Association, invested heavily in Aurora after new leadership at the local level began to highlight the concerns of educators including the charter conversion and the DSST invitation, union officials say.

“The community didn’t want to become Denver East,” said Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, a reference to the charter-friendly district next door. “They want to create their own vision of their quality public schools and they want a healthy relationship with the school district, board of education and community.”

Munn has repeatedly expressed a similar message — that Aurora’s school improvement strategies are not a carbon copy of Denver’s and that they are tailored to Aurora’s needs.

Aurora showed enough improvement to pull itself off the state’s watch list for persistent low performance, sparing itself from a state-sanctioned improvement plan. Outside groups, however, including education reform-friendly groups, have complained that the district isn’t doing nearly enough, citing disturbingly low academic proficiency and other troubling statistics.

Although union members and supporters had plenty to celebrate after Tuesday’s election, not all of organizers’ goals were accomplished. Vicky McRoberts, a former union leader who helped work on the Aurora campaign for the teachers union, said Tuesday night that ambitious goals to engage teachers in the campaign fell short.

But she said volunteers who did help campaign were successful in connecting with voters on issues polls showed they cared about — such as increasing career and technical opportunities for students.

Bruce Wilcox, president of the Aurora teacher’s union, said Wednesday that teachers from outside Aurora helped the campaign, as well.

“We also had more teachers than in the past from our own district,” Wilcox said. “A lot of our teachers did more that one event. I think teachers here in the district recognized that this was an important election.”

Wilcox said the union can’t control what the slate of new board members will do, but said teachers and the union just wanted more collaboration with the district, and to feel that their opinion will be heard.

“I don’t anticipate this board to make any sweeping changes,” Wilcox said. “I’m hoping this board can establish a relationship with Mr. Munn and move forward. We’re at a great crossroads. Our long range plans have come to an end. What better way to start that work moving forward.”