Looking ahead

Aurora school district looking at enrollment challenges, sees need for new plan

A HOPE Online student works during the day at an Aurora learning center. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

Aurora Public Schools is seeing the largest decline of students in decades, and it is likely that the enrollment numbers will not improve for five more years, school officials said on Tuesday.

Even as the student population drops, the decline is not uniform across the city, and the recovery may not be either, officials said. The largest loss of students is in the northwest corner of the city, an area of high poverty, while most growth is likely to be in the eastern portion of the district, near Bennett, officials said.

Those trends, derived from the district’s daily tracking of enrollment and presented to the school board on Tuesday, will present a set of different challenges in each part of the district and the district’s long-term strategic plan for addressing them expired this year.

“A question the entire community is going to have to answer is how can we rest assured that we’re going to be able to provide educational opportunities to all kids, understanding that we have some pretty dramatic differences,” said Anthony Sturges, chief operating officer for the district.

Enrollment for the district, according to numbers from the end of September, is about 41,250. That is down from a peak of 42,569 in 2015.

Officials said they expect the decline to reverse in about five years, giving them time to think and plan for the kind of district they would like to see emerge out of the enrollment trends.

Superintendent Rico Munn said he will seek information and advice to develop a strategic plan to guide the district through the transition. He proposed a set of seven questions to put to the community, including how to plan for or fund new buildings or how to modify existing ones. With the projections, it is possible the district will have to find ways to pay for new school buildings while also finding ways to cut costs at underutilized ones elsewhere.

Board members agreed with the superintendent’s proposed questions and lauded his proposal as proactive.

Last year, the school board had to make budget cuts mid-year as enrollment numbers dropped beyond what was expected. The district then went through a community process to find ways to shrink the 2017-18 budget by as much as $31 million. Ultimately because state funding was more generous than expected, not all of those budget cuts were made, but many schools still had to make staffing cuts for the current school year.

This year, because the enrollment drops were closer to what was predicted, no mid-year budget cuts are expected.

When the district first started seeing a significant drop in enrollment, officials were hopeful that the trend would only last a couple of years. Historically, an enrollment decline in Aurora schools has always reversed the next year. But that is not what officials are seeing this time.

Aurora Public Schools enrollment trends.

They attribute the decline this time to a variety of factors, including a lower birth rate, the increased cost of housing for families and an increase in the number of school options not managed by the district. But the geographical variation in the losses has much to do with development, which has varied throughout the city, and the trends are expected to continue.

In northwest Aurora, near the border with Denver, planned redevelopment will market to young professionals, not necessarily families. That, along with a continued increase in property values in that area, will likely keep pushing families out, especially many who live there and are of low-income status. Some schools in that area are still over 90 percent filled, but are not as overcrowded as other schools in the district.

Meanwhile near Aurora’s eastern boundary with Bennett, officials said there are two large housing developments being planned.

“We have not much out there and Bennet has nothing out there, and they’re talking about dropping 10,000 homes in the next 10 years,” said Superintendent Rico Munn. “We need to be thoughtful and creative about how we respond to those kinds of challenges and plan ahead for it, so that we’re not putting kids on buses for two hours to get to a school.”

Between 2010 and 2016, the population within the Aurora Public School boundaries increased for all age groups, except for children 0 to 5 years old, which saw a 7 percent decrease in population. It was not just Aurora that saw this decline, officials said. A lower birth rate during the recession affected communities across the state and the country.

But increased housing costs — up almost 40 percent in Aurora in less than 10 years — have also driven people out of the district, as well as some neighboring communities.

Most troubling to officials: enrollment increases at the same time to Aurora schools not under the district’s control.

Charter schools operating within the district are enrolling more students every year and the district expects that to continue. In 2016, charter schools had 4,399 students. This school year, charters have an estimated 5,027 students. By 2021, charter schools are expected to be educating more than 6,000 Aurora students, officials said.

Some of those schools, like HOPE Online and Roca Fuerte Academy, are authorized by other school districts.

At the same time, technological advances in the next decade could make online options attractive for more families, officials said, meaning the district should also consider district-run alternative models.

“Choice is here and choice will continue to be here,” said Superintendent Munn. “The question for us in large part is how much of this does this board manage? How much of this does this board get to really own and decide how that will be able to partner with this district?”

The 7 proposed questions to consider:

  • 1. What does the system of schools that serves students in APS boundaries look like to ensure equitable opportunities for all our studnets?
  • 2. What does the system of traditional schools look like to ensure equity of educational opportunities across the entire district in service of APS 2020 goals and goals of future strategic plans?
  • 3. How should APS meet the demands of growing enrollment in some parts of the district, particularly in areas with new developments?
  • 4. How should APS respond to schools that are seeing declining enrollment as a result of a number of factors?
  • 5. What types of instructional opportunities should the district offer for students?
  • 6. How do we plan for and fund new facilities or modify existing facilities to support that system and in light of anticipated and unanticipated changes?
  • 7. What is the relationship between APS and charter schools?

heated discussion

Aurora budget talks devolve into charter school spat

Aurora Public Schools board of directors and Superintendent Rico Munn, center.

Aurora isn’t facing major budget cuts, and school board members don’t have any significant disagreements with their superintendent’s budget priorities, but that didn’t stop a school board meeting this week from turning into a heated back and forth. At issue: the impact of charter schools, how new board members got elected, and what that says about what the community wants.

Four of the seven school board members were elected in November as part of a union-supported slate, sometimes speaking against charter schools. Many have been wondering what changes the new board will bring for the fifth largest district in the state, and Tuesday’s discussion shined a light on some rising tensions about different priorities.

The budget discussion was the last agenda item for the school board. District staff and Superintendent Rico Munn intended for the school board to provide guidance on whether their proposed budget priorities were the right ones.

Union-backed members who were sworn in in November pressed the superintendent and staff to talk about how charter schools would impact the district’s long-term finances.

“What I’ve always said is that charter schools have a negative impact on our financial model,” Munn said.

Veteran board member Dan Jorgensen asked Munn to clarify his statement.

“I don’t say necessarily it’s negative to the district, I say it’s negative to our financial model,” Munn said. “I just think that’s a fact.”

Then the conversation turned to the community. Board member Monica Colbert, one of the longer-serving board members, said the district is changing whether or not the board agrees because the community is demanding something different. The community “came out in droves” asking for the DSST charter school, she said.

Board President Marques Ivey, who was elected in November, disagreed.

“Not (to) this group that was voted in, I guess,” Ivey said. “I have to look at it in that way as well.”

Jorgensen supported Colbert’s argument.

“I think often times our perspective is also skewed by who we engage with, of course,” Jorgensen said. “But we need to be mindful we are here to represent our whole community.”

He added that a small fraction of Aurora’s registered voters voted in the school board election, saying, “there’s no mandate here at this table.”

When Ivey tried to dispute the numbers, Jorgensen continued.

“It’s not a debate,” he said. “That’s not the point. No one sits here based on — I mean there’s a lot of factors that contributed, like half a million dollars behind us or this or that.”

November’s election included large spending from the union and from pro-reform groups. The union slate of board members raised less money on their individual campaigns, but had the most outside help from union spending, totaling more than $225,000.

“I’m not going to let you get away with that shot,” Ivey said, stopping Jorgensen.

Then another board member stepped in to change the subject and ask for a word change on Munn’s list of budget priorities.

The district isn’t expecting to make significant budget cuts this coming school year, but in order to pay for some new directives the school board would like to see, district staff must find places to shrink the budget to make room.

The proposed priorities include being able to attract and retain staff, addressing inequalities, and funding work around social, emotional and behavioral needs. More specifically, one of the changes the district is studying is whether they can afford to create a centralized language office to make it easier for families and staff to access translation and interpretation help. It was a change several parents and community members showed up to the meeting to ask for.

Board members did not have major objections to the superintendent’s proposed priorities.

During the self-evaluation period at the end of the meeting, board member Kevin Cox said things aren’t as bad as they look.

“We’re building cohesion despite what may seem like heated discussions,” Cox said.

Things could be worse, he added – he’s heard of other groups getting in fist fights.

Correction: A quote in this story was changed to remove an expletive after Chalkbeat reviewed a higher quality audio recording of the meeting.

Knock knock

House call: One struggling Aurora high school has moved parent-teacher conferences to family homes

A social studies teacher gives a class to freshman at Aurora Central High School in April 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

When Aurora Central High School held traditional parent-teacher conference nights, fewer than 75 parents showed up.

This year, by taking the conferences to students’ homes, principal Gerardo De La Garza says the school has already logged more than 400 meetings with parents.

“This is something a lot of our families wanted,” De La Garza said. “We decided we wanted to add home visits as a way to build relationships with our community. The attendance at the traditional conferences was not where we wanted it to be.”

The home visits aren’t meant to reach every single student, though — the school has more than 2,000 enrolled this year. Instead, teams of teachers serving the same grade of students work together to identify students who need additional help or are having some issues. On Fridays, when the school lets out early, teachers are to go out and meet with those families. In some cases, they also schedule visits during other times.

Some parents and students say they weren’t made aware about the change and questioned if it was a good idea, while others welcomed the different approach.

“I felt when we go home that’s kind of our space, so I wasn’t comfortable with it,” said Akolda Redgebol, a senior at Aurora Central. Her family hasn’t had a home visit. “My parents, they thought it was a little odd, too.”

A father of another Aurora Central senior spoke to the school board about the change at a meeting earlier this month.

“There’s been a lot of changes over all these years, but one thing we could always count on was the opportunity to sit down with our child’s teachers during parent teacher conferences,” he said. “I hope this new program works, I really do, but why stop holding parent teacher conference nights at the high school? I haven’t had a single meeting. I haven’t met any of his teachers this year. Also why weren’t the parents told? I got two text messages, an email, and a phone call to let me know about a coffee meeting, but not a single notice about cancelling parent teacher conferences.”

Research examining the value of parent-teacher conferences is limited, but researchers do say that increased parent engagement can help lift student achievement. This year, the struggling Commerce City-based school district of Adams 14 also eliminated traditional parent-teacher conference nights from their calendar as a way to make more use of time. But after significant pushback from parents and teachers, the district announced it will return to the traditional approach next year.

Aurora Central High School is one of five in Aurora Public Schools’ “innovation zone,” one of Superintendent Rico Munn’s signature strategies for turning around struggling schools.

The school reached a limit of low performance ratings from the state and last year was put on a state-ordered improvement plan. That plan allowed the school to press on with its innovation plan, which was approved in 2016 and grants it some autonomy for decisions on its budget, school calendar, and school model.

As part of the school’s engagement with parents, the school in the last few years has hired a family liaison, though there’s been some turnover with that position. The school also hosts monthly parent coffee nights, as has become common across many Aurora schools.

As part of the innovation plan, school and community leaders also included plans to increase home visits.

Home visits have also become popular across many school districts as another way to better connect with families. Often, teachers are taught to use the visit as a time to build relationships, not to discuss academic performance or student behavior issues.

That’s not the case at Aurora Central. Principal De La Garza said it is just about taking the parent-teacher conference to the parent’s home. And teachers have been trained on how to have those conversations, he said.

The innovation plan didn’t mention removing conference nights, however.

De La Garza said that’s because parent-teacher conferences are still an option. If parents want to request a conference, or drop by on Fridays to talk to teachers, they still can.

Those Fridays when students end classes early are also the days teachers are expected to make house calls to contact families.

Teachers are expected to reach a certain number of families each Friday, though school and district staff could not provide that exact number.

Bruce Wilcox, the president of the Aurora teachers union, said that it’s important to better engage families, but that balance is needed so not all of the responsibility is put on teachers who are already busy.

Wilcox said he would also worry about teachers having less access to resources, such as translators, during home meetings.

Maria Chavez, a mother of a freshman at Aurora Central, just had a home visit last week. She learned about the school’s strategy when she was called about setting up the visit.

Another, older daughter, was the interpreter during the home meeting with three teachers.

“For me, it was a nice experience,” Chavez said. “As parents, and even the kids, we feel more trust with the teachers.”

Chavez said she goes to parent-teacher conferences with her elementary-aged daughter, but doesn’t always have time for conferences with her high-school-aged daughter, so the home visit was convenient. Chavez also said she was able to ask questions, and said the teachers were able to answer her concerns.

“Maybe I wouldn’t say this should be how every conference happens,” she said, “but it is a good idea.”