Charter flight: Aurora charter schools expanding into Montessori, specialty schools and into the budget of school districts
Ata packed Aurora Public Schools board meeting last May, most people who signed up for public comment were there to urge the board — ultimately unsuccessfully — not to close Paris and Sable elementary schools as part of the district’s long range facilities plan.
But there was another group of parents there urging the district to vote to open a series of new schools. Wildflower Montessori Public Schools of Colorado sought a charter to open a series of six “micro schools” in the city, some in the same area where the city is struggling with declining enrollment in its public elementary schools.
At the meeting, prospective parents and teachers spoke about how valuable a public Montessori option—a type of pedagogy that is typically only available in private schools that can set families back thousands of dollars each year—would be for Aurora.
“This type of education is typically only available in a private school setting and unobtainable for a family like mine,” said Chris Herter, the father of three young children.
The board ultimately voted 5-2 to send Wildflower directly to the Charter School Institute of Colorado for consideration instead of approving or denying the charter itself. In November, the Charter School Institute approved Wildflower, which plans to open its first schools in Aurora this August.
Two charter schools make the cut
At its most recent meeting, the APS board also voted to renew the charters of two of its existing charter schools, including Empower Community High School, dismissing the administration’s recommendation that it would not be viable if its charter was renewed, which the district administration recommended for non-approval due to its struggles over the past several years.
The board members appeared conflicted during the meeting, which started with about two hours of public comment, almost all of it from Empower and Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST) community members asking the board to extend their charters.
The board’s decisions reflect the conflicting pressures that APS, and schools across the country, face as K-12 schools in large urban areas begin to wrestle with the fallout from declining enrollment. Those pressures are particularly intense in Colorado, where public education receives some of the lowest state funding in the country.
Districts want to preserve their own public schools, and many view charter schools as siphoning off students that could otherwise be in the district.
“Every time the district approves a charter they are contributing to declining enrollment,” Sable Elementary teacher Leslie Burton said at a May 14 rally.
At the same time, charters are also a lure to keep some students and families who might otherwise turn to private schools rather than the public school system. They also offer some alternative education options that students aren’t able to get at their neighborhood school — options that some students badly need.
At January’s board meeting, some Empower students said they might have dropped out of school altogether if it wasn’t for Empower’s touted empowering approach.
“I feel that my voice is not only heard, it’s wanted. In other schools it was not wanted,” said Empower student Malachi Jones at the meeting.
Daniel Ruiz has been going to Empower for a year after coming to the Aurora area. He initially started going to Rangeview, but he said it didn’t feel like the right fit for him.
“It feels like a school where you can come in and you want to be there. It feels almost like a second home,” he said.
“The minute I am not at Empower, I feel like I will be at a greater disadvantage,” said student Ronald Jenkins.
District staff had recommended that the board vote to extend the charter of Aurora Science & Tech Middle School, part of the DSST Public Schools network, which the board ultimately granted. The sixth-through-eighth-grade school is located on the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and has a focus on STEM education. It also plans to break ground on a school for grades six through 12 in east Aurora serving the Green Valley Ranch East and Aurora Highlands neighborhoods, part of the city that is currently growing. The school will have to enter into a funding agreement for the new campus with APS, talks which the renewal of the charter has opened the door to take place.
In Empower’s case, district staff said that they did not believe that the school would be successful if its charter was extended past this school year. But after lobbying from community members, the board ultimately voted to renew its charter for two more years, giving Empower a second shot at success, which its supporters insisted that they could achieve.
The high school, tailored toward Black and Hispanic students, opened shortly before the pandemic, which its supporters said at the meeting meant that it never got a fair shake during its initial years of approval.
“Empower is only beginning to stretch its legs,” said Board Director Susana Cabrera.
Jhenny Hernandez, who works at the school, said that Empower hasn’t yet had a chance to live up to its full potential.
Concerns that the district listed included enrollment that was less than half of what its original charter application called for, as well as academic and budget concerns. The school leadership also experienced significant turnover during the past two years, which the current leadership said is now behind it.
“Support is there among the Empower community, but based on standards we are required to look at, I believe that Empower Community High School is unlikely to be successful if granted an additional charter,” Interim Superintendent Mark Seglem said at the meeting.
When voting, board members said that despite their concerns, they also acknowledged the need for the district to give students options.
“I’m not a big charter fan in general because of how it takes money from our general fund, but we also need partnerships,” said APS Board President Debbie Gerkin.
Board member Nichelle Ortiz said that the disparities in graduation rates across Colorado had been on her mind before the vote.
“It’s evident that families want choice for their students,” she said. “These are two schools that are doing that thing differently but meeting the needs of students. And if they don’t get it here they’re going to find it in another district.”
The board voted 6-1 to extend the charter, with Gerkin the only one not voting. Before the vote, board member Anne Keke pledged to visit the school and said that her vote would be focused on the best interests of the students.
“I would need the adults, for lack of a better word, to step up,” she said. “We have high expectations for you and all of our schools. There won’t be an exception for you.”
Wildflower wants a chance
A desire for choice is also what prompted Wildflower Montessori Public Schools of Colorado to seek a charter for the Aurora area.
Hannah Ewert-Krocker, an operations guide for Wildflower, said that it decided to try to set up a Montessori program in Aurora due to feedback it heard from local parents.
The district raised concerns last spring about Wildflower’s ability to demonstrate enough need in the area and its ability to fund itself sustainably. Ewert-Krocker said she is confident in Wildflower’s model.
“It’s challenging and complex to get a charter approved in a local school district in Colorado right now,” she said. “We believe really firmly in the viability of our model and feel like CSI’s approval speaks to that as well.”
Wildflower ultimately plans to open six schools in Aurora, three in east Aurora and three in northwest Aurora. The network will have two early childhood education through kindergarten schools, two first-through-third-grade schools and two first-through-sixth-grade schools. The first school will open in August with prekindergarten through second grade, Ewert-Krocker said.
She acknowledged that northwest Aurora is an area with declining enrollment overall, but she said, “I think the demand that we’ve heard is for this particular choice.”
“We’re not talking about opening up a 500-child school,” she said.
The “micro school” model means that each school will have one to two classrooms of about 30 students each. Each school will be run by two “teacher leaders” who will receive support from network-wide staff. The teacher leaders will have broad authority over how their schools are running, including managing much of their own budget, and will also solicit feedback from families on how they want their students to learn.
Montessori educator Martha Briggs will be one of Wildflower’s teacher leaders. After initially working as a paraeducator at a public school district in Texas, Briggs first became drawn to Montessori when her own students attended a Montessori school. One of her children of hers has ADHD, and she said the Montessori school’s learning approach helped him to thrive.
“As I was going through that process with him, I realized I wanted to offer the same to other children in similar situations,” she said. “I found that Montessori was the way to do that.”
Briggs was also drawn to teaching following her own negative experiences in school. A native of Mexico, she moved to the United States in seventh grade without knowing English, and was bullied by other students. She wants to create a different experience for students in Aurora’s immigrant-heavy population.
“It was painful to go to school and to know that I was going to be made fun of the next day,” she said. “I don’t want other kids to go through something like that. I want them to come to a safe space where we can make them feel that they are welcome.”
Megan Mosher was also drawn to Montessori through her own personal experiences. Mosher, who moved to the Aurora area from New York last year with her husband and two young children, was a Montessori student as a child. She recalls being bored when she eventually went to a public school.
“I remember being the most engaged and feeling the most free to follow my own interests in Montessori, which is why I would like my children to have the same experience,” she said.
However, her own family isn’t in “the same financial boat” her parents were growing up, and she can’t afford to send their kids to a private school. She was excited when she learned about Wildflower, and she plans to enroll her daughter de ella this fall.
Montessori has a reputation as being “open to families who have a lot of money, and that’s about it,” Mosher said. A charter that is not tuition-based is “a really neat opportunity.”
Van Schoales, a senior policy director focused on education at the Keystone Policy Institute, said that the way public education is set up in Colorado can be challenging for public schools. Parents have broad latitude to pick where they want to send their children, which isn’t the case in many other states.
“Part of the challenge for school districts is there is this kind of environment where there is a marketplace,” he said. “And some districts embrace that and others ignore it. When districts ignore what parents are interested in, they will often go somewhere else.”
That can make it difficult for districts to reject a charter. The state board of education, which has the power to override a board’s no vote and require districts to accept charters, is another factor.
“There’s a dynamic in a lot of places where a school district’s ability to plan for school openings, plan for enrollment, is undermined by the state board or the Charter School Institute and upsets the apple cart in terms of the district’s ability to plan around enrollment decline,” said Kevin Wagner, a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education.
Charter schools can be beneficial to districts in places where enrollment is increasing, but in places where enrollment is declining it can lead to “some really difficult decisions,” he said.
“If I’m a parent looking for a Montessori school to open I’m pretty thrilled,” he said of Wildflower. “But the state’s interests have to be broader than if one particular parent or group of parents are happy, particularly due to how underfunded school districts are in Colorado.”