Classroom crunch looms for Aurora Public Schools

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AURORA | For the past year, officials from Aurora Public Schools have slowly been laying the foundation for what could be a seismic shift in the way the district operates several of its schools.

The district, which enrolls slightly less than 40,000 students, has been holding open houses and community forums since last spring to address concerns and outline a slew of options regarding overcrowding at its schools.

And last week, APS wrapped up its most recent series of open houses with a meeting at Vista PEAK Exploratory P-8 where teachers and administrators chatted with parents about the possibility of moving to a year-round calendar.

Although far from set in stone, the year-round option would place students and teachers on four different tracks and give them different, shorter windows of time off from school instead of one long summer vacation. Students and teachers would attend school for 45 days at a time, followed by a 15-day break, all year long. The system has proven to boost capacity at schools by about 30 percent, according to district documents.

“It’s a solution that other districts in Colorado have used to expand capacity when they were unable to build new facilities,” said Josh Hensley, planning coordinator for APS.

Hensley said that there are no APS schools currently operating on a year-round calendar, although the district dabbled with the structure in various forms in the 1980s and 1990s. At its peak, APS had seven elementary schools and two middle schools on year-round calendars in the late 1990s. But the district stopped using year-round calendars in 2000, according to Shannon Bingham, an education consultant with Western Demographics who has worked with APS for more than 20 years.

The neighboring Cherry Creek School District currently has a handful of elementary schools operating on the year-round model, according to CCSD documents.

APS could implement a year-round calendar as soon as 2017, at which time a lottery system would be devised that would allow families to request preferred tracks for their children. APS has identified six P-8 schools along the district’s eastern periphery that could be impacted by the year-round calendar: Aurora Frontier, Aurora Quest, Clyde Miller, Edna and John Mosley, Murphy Creek and Vista PEAK Exploratory.

Hensley said that the district has circled those schools due to their proximity to Aurora’s ballooning hive of suburban, eastern development.

“Our growth is occurring on the eastern part of the district and the schools that serve the eastern part of the district are all P-8,” he said. “We have several subdivisions that are active out here as well as many more planned. We are seeing growth in this area and we expect to see even more rapid growth in the near future.”

Even following the opening of the full Vista PEAK P-20 campus in 2010 and Edna and John W. Mosley P-8 just last year, the district remains squeezed for space. More than two-thirds of APS schools have been outfitted with demountable trailers to accommodate an influx of students, according to district documents. What’s more, enrollment at APS has swelled by about 7,000 students since 2008 and is expected to annually increase about 1 or 2 percent in the coming years.

But a chasm of unanswered questions stands between the status quo and APS students attending school all year long. The calendar decision is almost entirely contingent on the district issuing — and voters approving — a bond issue this November. If the district and voters approve of a bond, APS will handle growth the same way it has for years — build and improve schools.

In APS’ long-range facility plan, the district calls for a slew of building and technological improvements, including new schools in northwest and east Aurora, additions to Hinkley High School and Rangeview High School, and an addition to Vista PEAK Preparatory 9-12, according to APS planning documents.

If the bond isn’t approved, the district will have to get more creative, according to Hensley.

“If for some reason we do not go for a bond or we’re not successful, then we’ll have to go back to our board and discuss options to handle growth without new facilities, more efficiently using the buildings we have,” he said. “One option at that point might be considering year-round school in the future.”

Historically, Aurora voters have been relatively sympathetic to tossing APS a financial life line. The district’s last voter-approved bond in 2008 totaled  $215 million, a large portion of which was used to fund the construction of the Vista PEAK P-20 campus. Vista PEAK Preparatory and Vista PEAK Exploratory opened in 2010.

Hensley said that the district has conducted polling to determine voters’ appetite for a bond, and the latest estimations have suggested a possible ballot question this year could ask for an additional $250 to $350 million. APS finance officials are expected to speak before the Board of Education next month regarding the potential tax implications a bond could have for residents, according to Hensely.

In lieu of a bond, Hensley said that many parents have received plans for a year-round calendar with chilly skepticism.

“Most parents I would say were pretty concerned about it,” he said. “Because most people in Colorado are on a traditional calendar, and it’s a change. Any change makes people a little anxious and curious.”

Staff at APS schools have also expressed concerns regarding a year-round calendar, citing the myriad uncertainties still hovering over the issue. Among the principle concerns of APS teachers and administrators: Deciphering sports schedules, aligning siblings in different schools to be on the same track, providing sufficient on-site childcare for working parents, and maintaining adequate planning and professional development time for teachers.

Larry Thigpen, an assistant principal at Vista PEAK Exploratory, said that he’s also concerned with straining the budget and luring additional employees.

“(Under the year-round model) our budget is, I think, they said $850,000 more a year per school to run, with extra custodians, our nurse only works a certain time, our special education staff, you have to have like 0.33 (more) of each person to make this happen,” he said.

Leslie Burton, a first-grade teacher at Vista PEAK Exploratory, said that the year-round model, though beneficial for students, would dash teachers’ opportunities to earn additional income during the summer.

“It would be very difficult,” Burton said. “I know many of us have summer jobs and we make a good amount of money nannying or something all summer long, and now that’d be no longer available to us. That’s frustrating. It’s hard enough to get a job for six weeks, let alone three weeks every few months.”

The district’s long-range facilities advisory committee and a separate calendar committee will both present extensive research to the Board of Education in May. The Board will then consider issuing a bond throughout the summer, culminating with a deciding vote in August. Depending on what happens at the polls in November, the board will then vote on the 2017-18 calendar structures in December.