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DSST charter network would open four new schools in Aurora under staff recommendation

PHOTO: Nic Garcia, Chalkbeat

High-achieving Denver-based charter school network DSST is one step closer to expanding into Aurora after school district staff recommended school board approval of four new schools.

School board members asked few questions at Tuesday night’s board meeting. Although some had previously raised questions about the way Superintendent Rico Munn had singled out DSST as a potential partner and offered it a building, most applauded the charter approval process.

“I appreciate the whole process from the get-go, from being a focused effort on Superintendent Munn’s part to seek out a partnership that is part of our transformation in the district to the new process,” said Amber Drevon, the school board president. “I just think we have a huge opportunity here. I see this whole thing changing the relationship that we have with charter schools and how we deal with them and how we best work together to support students.”

The school board will vote on the charter application at its June 20 meeting.

DSST is known for intentionally seeking to build racially integrated schools, high state test scores and getting all of its students accepted into four-year universities. The network runs four of the five top high schools in Denver and has earned national attention, leading to donations from Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey.

DSST currently educates about 5,000 students and is planning to expand within Denver to operate 22 schools by 2024. The Aurora schools would be the network’s first outside of Denver.

Aurora’s school district has not traditionally been known as friendly to charter schools, adding to the significance of the planned expansion there.

Aurora officials made some changes this year to the way the district reviews charter school applications having each go through a new Charter School Advisory Committee as well as the usual District Accountability Committee. There is now a minimum of three internal and external reviewers per subject.

The evaluations found DSST’s application met the bar in every one of its 20 sections including on budget, transportation, waivers and engagement. The application scored the highest in sections related to parent and community involvement. It was partially proficient in three of 20 sections, but Aurora officials explained to the board that there were valid explanations for those lower scores.

In one section, for instance, on budget, DSST received a lower score because its budget included a large amount of money coming from grants and fundraising. Districts often want charters to have conservative budgets with money that is guaranteed. But DSST officials were able to point to a track record of fundaising support for its programs.

Another section on facilities was scored low because DSST didn’t yet have many details about where it would locate. But district officials explained they wouldn’t expect DSST to go look for a building, given the offer that the district extended to the charter operator to construct a new building.

Board members on Tuesday asked questions about the school’s philosophy and about whether the charter network might be willing to waive appeal rights in case the district ever closed the charter schools for performance reasons or for losing state accreditation.

Bill Kurtz, the CEO of DSST, said that was a legal question he wouldn’t respond to, but said he would hope the situation never came up.

Under the DSST charter application, the network would start by opening a middle school in the fall of 2019, starting with 150 sixth graders. The school would add a grade level each year until having a middle school serving sixth through eighth grades and a high school serving ninth through 12th graders. A second campus would start the same way opening in the fall of 2021, starting with a middle school and building up to the addition of a high school.

The network’s new schools in Aurora would likely have a different name; DSST stands for the Denver School of Science and Technology.

Under Munn’s original proposal inviting the charter network into Aurora, the school district would pay for up to half of the cost of a new district-owned building and allow DSST to use it if the charter network came up with the rest of the money.

DSST officials responded that they would assist with fundraising to complete the building, but that they believe the school district should take the lead.

The recommendation presented Tuesday for approval of the charter schools does not detail any amounts the district and the charter network would each be responsible for raising but sets a deadline of March 30 for raising all the money needed. A total cost has not been updated, but at the time of the proposal the district estimated their cost between $15 million and $23 million.

“In conjunction with APS, fundraising dollars will be secured to construct an APS facility adequate to house the middle and high schools envisioned in the first campus,” the proposed resolution states. “In the event necessary fundraising dollars are not obtained, applicant will be given the opportunity to seek other options to secure a facility.”

The district’s portion of the funding for a DSST building will come from bond money approved by voters in November. At an update on bond projects earlier this spring, district officials told the board early work was underway for designs of the building in consultation with DSST.


Aurora’s superintendent will get a contract extension

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

The Aurora school board is offering superintendent Rico Munn a contract extension.

Marques Ivey, the school board president, made the announcement during Tuesday’s regular board meeting.

“The board of education believes we are headed in the right direction,” Ivey said. Munn can keep the district going in the right direction, he added.

The contract extension has not been approved yet. Munn said Tuesday night that it had been sent to his lawyer, but he had not had time to review it.

Munn took the leadership position in Aurora Public Schools in 2013. His current contract is set to expire at the end of June.

Munn indicated he intends to sign the new contract after he has time to review it. If he does so, district leaders expect the contract to be on the agenda of the board’s next meeting, April 3, for a first review, and then for a vote at the following meeting.

Details about the new offer, including the length of the extension or any salary increases, have not been made public.

Four of the seven members currently on the board were elected in November as part of a union-supported slate. Many voiced disapproval of some of the superintendent’s reform strategies such as his invitation to charter school network DSST to open in Aurora.

In their first major vote as a new board, the board also voted against the superintendent’s recommendation for the turnaround of an elementary school, signaling a disagreement with the district’s turnaround strategies.

But while several Aurora schools remain low performing, last year the district earned a high enough rating from the state to avoid a path toward state action.


Struggling Aurora elementary must decide next steps on recommendations

Teachers at Lyn Knoll Elementary should get more than 20 minutes per day for planning, school officials should consider switching to a district-selected curriculum for literacy, and the school should find a way to survey neighborhood families who send their children to school elsewhere.

Those are some of the recommendations for improvement presented to Aurora’s school board this week by a committee overseeing the work at Lyn Knoll.

But because the school has a status that allows it more autonomy, those recommendations cannot be turned into mandates, committee members told the school board this week. Instead, school officials must now weigh these suggestions and decide which they might follow.

Bruce Wilcox, president of the Aurora teachers union and member of the joint steering committee, said he doesn’t expect every recommendation “to come to fruition,” but said whether or not each recommendation is followed is not what’s important.

“It really will come down to, is improvement made or not,” Wilcox said.

Rico Munn, the superintendent of Aurora Public Schools, had recommended Lyn Knoll for turnaround after the school fell to the state’s lowest quality rating last year. Enrollment at the school has also dropped. But the Aurora school board voted instead to wait another year to see if the school itself can make improvements.

Munn Thursday suggested that the board may still make part of that decision contingent on approval of the school’s action plan.

The union-led joint steering committee that wrote the recommendations offered to monitor and guide the school during the 2018-19 school year as it tries to improve, but it’s a role the group has never taken on before. Part of that role has already started with committee members visiting the school for observations.

“The purpose of the joint steering committee is to be a place the schools can go to and ask for guidance,” Wilcox said. “This is where it’s doing well.”

Lyn Knoll is one of three district-run schools in Aurora that have pilot status, which was created about 10 years ago when the district worked with its teachers union to create a path for schools to earn autonomy.

This was before Colorado passed the law that allows schools to seek innovation status, which is a state process that grants schools waivers from some state, district, and union rules as a way to try new ideas.

“At the time that pilot schools came in, our district was very lockstep,” Wilcox said. “What was done at one school was done at the other. That was the framework.”

Schools that wanted to try something different or unique could apply to the district for pilot status if they had a plan with school and community support. Each pilot school also had to create a school governing board that could include teachers and community members that would help the school make decisions.

At Lyn Knoll, one of the popular innovations involved letting students have physical education every day of the week, something not common in many schools.

Another of the district’s pilot schools, William Smith High School, uses its status to lead a school unlike any other in the district, with a project-based learning model where students learn standards from different subjects through real-life scenarios and projects.

The Aurora district, like many districts around the country, now has created more ways beyond pilot status for principals to make specific changes at their school.

In Aurora, Munn said the current structure of the district, which now has “learning communities,” is meant to be responsive to the differences between groups of schools.

“We’re really trying to strongly connect different parts of the district and be flexible and there are different ways of doing that,” Munn said.

Schools can come to the district and request permission to use a different curriculum, for instance, or to change their school calendar so students can be released early on certain days for teacher planning time. There’s also a district application process so that schools that need specific help or resources from the district can request them. And more recently, schools that want several, structured, waivers are more likely to apply for the state’s innovation status, which provides “a stronger framework,” Munn said.

The district said current pilot school principals could not speak about their school model for this story.

Lyn Knoll currently has no principal for next year. Officials at Thursday’s board meeting suggested waiting until a new principal is identified or hired so that person could work with the school’s governing board on a plan for change. It was unclear how soon that might happen, although finalists are being scheduled for interviews next week.

Clarification: The story has been updated to reflect that the need for a principal at Lyn Knoll is for next year.