If Not Now: Transforming Aurora Public Schools from Failing to Great

The City of Aurora has seen remarkable growth in recent years. It is home to the largest health sciences development in the Rocky Mountain region and to the fastest growing military base in the U.S. It has a thriving small business community and attracts a deeply diverse population of residents with a rich history of community support and pride. Imagine this city with a thriving school system that capitalizes on this remarkable growth and rich demographics. Aurora is at a critical juncture; it can emerge in the next few decades as one of the great Western cities. Or, it can stall and those with the highest paying jobs will commute to work but live elsewhere, taking with them the resources generated in the local community.

Now is the time for Aurora to take a hard look at the state of its schools. Great cities and communities require great schools. Yet, according to the Colorado Department of Education, Aurora Public Schools (APS) has been one of the worst performing school districts in the state for at least four years, and will face a loss of accreditation if it cannot improve. Even without the state intervening, it’s clear the district must begin the hard work of drastically improving schools, so students can learn and thrive, and so educational and workforce pipelines can be created within the community. Aurora students should be able to access the jobs being created in the community, and earn a living wage.

By 2020 more than 70% of new jobs along the Front Range will require a degree or higher education certificate; yet, only 10% of Aurora students will receive the degree or certificate necessary for these jobs. And by all indicators these numbers are getting worse: proficiency rates across all subjects are dropping. We know it doesn’t have to be this way. Aurora can create a school system where families actively choose its schools over schools in other districts. Communities across the country with similar demographics and fewer community resources have turned their school systems around. Aurora too could be an exemplar, but first, the Aurora community and the school district must forge a path to improve its schools.

For too long Aurora has been neglected in conversations about improving public education. Instead, people have focused their attention and improvement efforts on Denver Public Schools (DPS), ignoring the challenges and growing number of students on the city’s margins. The attention needs to shift; behind Denver, Aurora is home to the largest number of the state’s failing schools in a single district, and some of the lowest academic achievement in the metro area. For all students in Aurora, and most dramatically for low-income students of color, proficiency rates are falling. Just over half of Aurora students are graduating from high school. Less than half of high school students feel safe in school. School district staff does not feel like the district has a vision for student success.