Of the eight If Not Now recommendations, this is the one that has seen the most movement. While APS did not open any new schools this year, it did lay a foundation for developing exemplar new schools. Some of the most important developments include: a district reorganization, approving new APS schools, and strategic school replacements.
The Office of Autonomous Schools
District organization and budget allocation can tell us a lot about priorities. Before this year, Aurora Public Schools had one full-time employee whose job it was to “oversee day-to-day operations at district authorized charter schools. Provide expert support and guidance in the areas of operations, governance, instruction, assessment, facilities and finance.” That is no small task for one person with seven district-authorized charter schools to look after. The creation of the Office of Autonomous Schools, a 4-person team tasked with overseeing the charter and newly created innovation schools in APS, signals a shift toward increased presence of charter and innovation schools in Aurora. Lamont Browne, an experienced charter and district leader, was a great hire for the the leader of the Office of Autonomous Schools. Mackenzie Stauffer, the Charter School Director offers extensive experience in charter authorizing. The office and its strong leadership has the opportunity and skill necessary to develop structures for quality authorizing and support practices across the district.
New Charter Schools
Several new charter schools approved to open in APS show great promise for success. For example, the Academy for Advanced Learning, a charter run by former Dallas superintendent Mike Miles, is set to open for the 2017-2018 school year. This school design builds upon the same practices used by the nation’s most effective charter schools serving low-income students.
APS is now home to a campus of the high-achieving, Denver-based charter network Rocky Mountain Prep. The Aurora School Board voted to replace Fletcher Community School, a persistently underperforming elementary school in North Aurora, with Rocky Mountain Prep (RMP). A quick glance at Fletcher’s performance on PARCC last year exemplifies the student achievement crisis at Fletcher: fewer than 15 of the roughly 130 students tested in 2015 met grade-level expectations on each the English Language Arts and Math exams (data for 2016 not available). In Denver, RMP has demonstrated impressive growth with a median growth percentile of 76% with similar student populations to those at Fletcher. Students who would have attended Fletcher Community School will have priority enrollment in RMP, ensuring that these students have access to a high-quality school.
Many new charter schools looking to open in Aurora are interested in serving the northwest Aurora community. However, a competitive Aurora real estate market makes finding a building for a charter school difficult. At this time, the district does not systematically provide support for charter schools in locating, securing, or financing buildings, so charter leaders looking to open in Aurora are expected to do so independently. So far, the exception to this rule has been Rocky Mountain Prep. One way that the district could support future high-quality charter options would be through equitable sharing of bond funds with charter schools.
- Clearly delineate district policies for the approval of new charter schools and charter replacements. Ensure that these policies include community and family engagement at multiple points in the process.
- Create systems that encourage collaboration and sharing best practices between autonomous schools and and district-run schools.
- Share bond and mill funds equitably with all district schools, including charter and innovation schools.
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