Tough options

Aurora schools weighing a long list of possible budget cuts for next year

Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn in 2013 (Denver Post file)

Eliminating full-day kindergarten, adding furlough days and cutting middle school sports are among the steps Aurora Public Schools is considering to shrink next year’s budget as the district copes with an array of financial challenges.

The three scenarios are part of a long list of possible moves district officials are considering to slash the 2017-18 budget, which needs to be about $31 million less than the current year’s budget.

The district cut $3 million from central administration in the middle of this school year after an unanticipated enrollment decline, its largest in decades.

More expected declines in enrollment and other factors are causing district officials to seek community input on what to prioritize as it faces tough decisions about next year’s budget.

Like districts across the state, Aurora is also expecting state funding will again fall short of the amount that a state formula calculates it should get. Cuts could be even greater next year because a state constitutional amendment may drop residential property taxes, meaning districts would lose some local revenue.

The Aurora district has held back big cuts to the classroom in recent years by spending money from the district’s reserves — a rainy-day fund of unallocated savings — but now the district wants to start building up that account again instead of draining it.

“It’s a challenging mix of contributing factors,” said Rico Munn, superintendent of Aurora Public Schools.

At an open house Saturday about the district’s budget conundrum, one person asked Munn why the district hadn’t asked voters for a tax increase from a mill levy override in November at the same time as a $300 million bond request — which voters approved — in anticipation of the cuts.

Munn said asking for both may have doomed the requests but said the district is considering asking voters for such a tax increase next year. Anticipating a longer trend of shrinking enrollment, he said the budget still needs to shrink.

A tax increase is not meant to address a drop in students, Munn said.

“It’s not appropriate for us to say we have fewer students but we want more money,” he said.

The district already has come up with one set of proposed cuts that would account for $21.8 million of the $31 million the district aims to cut. Those steps include renegotiating employee health benefits, eliminating late-start Wednesdays at some schools and charging more overhead costs to state funds that help districts for things like preschool.

The district is asking for community feedback on other possible cuts to find the rest of the savings. Officials are sharing a list of 41 ideas for cutting the budget and created four scenarios including one that just reduces school staffing. People also have the option to draw their own budget from the list.

Some of the ideas include shifting to a four-day week for a savings of $450,000; eliminating three swimming pools at high schools for a savings of $500,000; and postponing or canceling the adoption of new curriculum materials for a savings of $2.4 million.

Looking through the list, Marisa Sanchez, a mother of two boys in the district, worried that many choices would have too much of an impact on students.

“Wanting to remove staff from schools shouldn’t be an option,” Sanchez said. “They’re there because they are necessary. I’m a volunteer at my son’s school and I see it.”

Donna Godfrey said she is fine with the district getting rid of swimming pools but also doesn’t want to see less staff in schools. She said she worried about classrooms filled with students that need more support like those learning English or who are new to the country.

“Adding just three more students to that class, it’s a bad thing,” Godfrey said.

Sanchez also worried that shifting the enrollment process to the schools instead of at the district-level, an idea that would save $443,085, “would be chaos.”

Munn said he hasn’t processed the feedback that the district has received so far, but said it will all be considered.

“What I’m happy about is that people can actually digest these options and think about some of the tough choices we have to make,” Munn said.

The district will have one more open house at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Vista PEAK Exploratory School, 24551 E. 1st Ave. Online, the district will continue to take feedback through Feb. 3.

Correction: This post has been updated to reflect that more drastic budget cuts could be expected next year because of a change in personal property taxes. 

language learning

KIPP charter network launching biliteracy program at new Denver elementary school

A first grade student reading in Spanish in a biliteracy classroom at Dupont Elementary in Adams 14. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

A high-performing charter network will run a biliteracy program at a new elementary school in southwest Denver this fall — a first for KIPP schools in Colorado.

KIPP officials said they designed the program in response to parent interest in bilingual education that starts from a young age. Many families had seen their high school students educated in two languages earning a seal of biliteracy upon graduation.

“Families said, ‘why can’t we start that sooner when kids are learning to read instead of waiting until high school to develop those skills,’” said Kimberlee Sia, the CEO of KIPP Colorado. “It was really driven by families seeing what was possible with their older students.”

Ellen Dobie-Geffen, KIPP Colorado’s director of English language development, designed the program and said KIPP is optimistic about the academic results it can have.

“We really believe in the power of biliteracy,” Dobie-Geffen said. “We’re not doing something that’s impossible.”

Several charter schools across the state offer dual-language or language immersion programs, but biliteracy programs, which focus on simultaneously creating a literacy foundation in both English and Spanish as a way to foster bilingualism and to help kids learn to read while they are still learning the language, are still rare in Colorado. While the programs are similar, they have distinct goals and can target different students.

In the case of KIPP, this program isn’t designed for students who have no English background, although they are welcome to take part. Rather, the biliteracy program is designed for students who are growing up in English/Spanish environments, which KIPP officials say describes the vast majority of the students in southwest Denver.

As the charter network works on expanding outside of Denver, officials said that if the program at the new KIPP Sunshine Peak Elementary goes well, they may replicate it at a new school in the Adams 14 school district. Biliteracy education was a common request from parents there too.

For several years, a number of Adams 14 schools had been rolling out a biliteracy program from the University of Colorado. But this year, Adams 14 officials put the program on hold, claiming they were unsure of its effectiveness, and citing shortages of qualified teachers. Parents and advocates have held protests and community meetings, and continue to ask the board to reconsider.

Last month, several mothers who asked the board to support a KIPP charter school for their district cited its bilingual programming among their reasons.

One of those parents, Maria Centeno, told the board that she didn’t feel that her district school celebrated her Hispanic culture, but she said she saw students integrated and working together at KIPP.

In biliteracy programs, the amount of exposure students get to their home language and English can change by grade level, compared with dual-language programs that generally stay at a 50-50 split. At KIPP, students will start in preschool with 50 percent of their instruction in Spanish and 50 percent in English. The balance will shift so that students in fourth grade may be getting about 70 percent instruction in English and about 30 percent in Spanish.

“There are very few bilingual options in Denver at the middle school level,” Dobie-Geffen said. “We want to make sure we are setting students up to have the academic vocabulary to be successful.”

Dobie-Geffen said if the school in Adams 14 is approved, KIPP’s biliteracy program could be modified for the needs of that community.

Before designing the biliteracy program, KIPP also started a program last year, as mandated by a standing court order for the Denver district to serve English language learners, at its school at the other end of town in the far northeast.

That transitional program has accelerated students’ literacy growth, Dobie-Geffen said.

For southwest Denver, KIPP officials chose to create the biliteracy program, modeled upon other programs and based on research.

Kathy Escamilla, director of the BUENO Center at CU Boulder created a biliteracy program used in many districts across the country, said charter schools may have some advantages when operating a biliteracy program because of their independence and flexibility.

Escamilla said one of the keys to success is to train and help teachers as they roll out any biliteracy program.

KIPP plans to train teachers for five weeks this summer. Dobie-Geffen said teachers who already have the state’s credential for teaching students who aren’t fluent in English are “a bonus.” KIPP is requiring its teachers be certified as early-childhood educators and as bilingual teachers – under standards set by the district’s court order.

Sia, KIPP’s CEO, said finding teachers who meet those requirements was difficult. It’s a challenge for all schools offering bilingual programming.

Teacher training will cover the biliteracy program, why KIPP chose it, and how to execute a good lesson.

After that, teachers will receive weekly trainings, which can focus on biliteracy if teachers or charter leaders feel teachers need it.

School choice

Denver area charter prepares to expand into the suburbs, bringing a new option to Adams 14

KIPP Sunshine Peak Academy students in a 2008 file photo. (Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Charter school officials from KIPP plan to propose their first Colorado school outside of Denver, a preschool through 12th grade school to be located just north in the Adams 14 school district.

The proposal would come as welcome news to some parents who asked the district’s school board at a meeting last month to approve KIPP’s proposal so that they can have more school options.

“I’ve been frustrated with our schools for a long time, and I’m ready for a change,” said Maribel Pasillas, one of the district mothers who spoke to the board. “I feel full of hope after seeing this school.”

KIPP’s proposal comes as Adams 14 nears a deadline on a state-mandated plan for improvement under the state’s new accountability process. If approved, KIPP, which aims to educate students living in poverty, would be the third charter school within Adams 14’s boundaries.

Kimberlee Sia, the CEO of KIPP Colorado, said she is aiming for opening in 2019. She said numerous factors led the high-performing network to target Adams 14, but a main reason was input from parents in the district.

Parents asked KIPP for a school that can provide biliteracy education, Sia said, and the network just designed a bilingual literacy program that will be used for their new southwest Denver elementary school. Parents also asked officials for the ability to volunteer in school, host events, and to have easy access to interpreters or translators, all things Sia said KIPP officials were happy to hear.

And parents said they wanted mental health and special education services along with a variety of class offerings such as yoga. Sia said KIPP schools already provide those opportunities. “I think those, to us, are pretty basic components,” Sia said.

One KIPP mom who lives in the Adams 14 boundary, Martha Gonzalez, told the district board she drives up to three hours per day to take her son to KIPP in Denver.

Gonzalez said she was recently surprised to learn more than 100 other parents do the same after choosing schools “very far away.” She asked the board to give those families the opportunity to have a KIPP school closer to their neighborhoods.

KIPP is looking at providing transportation for students that choose to go to the school.

KIPP officials found a lot of their existing students already come from the northern suburbs, since many left Denver as rent prices increased in the city.

In Denver, and in some other communities like Aurora, officials have started noticing the number of students who come from low-income families is dropping. But Adams 14 is one of the suburban metro-area districts where the number of students living in poverty is rising.

The state’s improvement plan for Adams 14 requires that the district demonstrate improvement in their state ratings that will be out this fall, or state officials could order further changes.

Among the options the state has for directing improvement, state officials could ask the district to hand over management of some or all of their schools to a charter school, an outside management company, or can ask the district to reorganize and merge with a more successful district.

District officials could also make those changes preemptively and then ask the state to back them.

But Sia said KIPP is not looking to turnaround a school in Adams 14. Instead, the charter school would open in a new building.

Officials from KIPP plan to submit their charter school application next month, before the Aug. 1 deadline. They know they want a new school that would grow to serve preschool through 12th grade students, and that they would provide mental health, language, and special education services.

This year, if KIPP completes their application, Aracelia Burgos, the district’s chief academic officer, would receive the charter school applications, but “applications will be reviewed by a committee and the Charter School Institute,” a district spokesperson said.

Sia and other KIPP officials will continue holding meetings with parents — sometimes with as few as eight parents, other times up to 30 may show up — and asking for input.

One Adams 14 mom, Maria Centeno, told the Adams 14 school board that she was impressed by what KIPP provided at their schools, including a counselor for alumni going through college.

But Centeno said, as great as those features are, “one of the things that most caught my attention was that they really asked us what we wanted in our school instead of just telling us how it was going to be.”

Centeno and several other parents who are helping KIPP design a school have already taken a tour of existing KIPP schools in Denver. Centeno said she noticed big differences comparing the charter to her existing district schools.

“I felt very happy to see all of the students in the school were working together,” Centeno said. “At my school they don’t celebrate our culture. At KIPP all of the students were together and, most importantly, they seemed to have fun.”

Other parents who spoke to the board about their tours at KIPP also mentioned seeing that teachers spoke in Spanish with the students, and that students seemed to have high expectations.

“Why can’t we bring schools that are already doing really incredible things?” Centeno asked the district’s school board.