APS board forces ACS charter school to double enrollment in months or close

Lone signage for the Aurora Community School is taped to the door of Restoration Christian Fellowship at 15660 E. 6th Ave.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

AURORA | In a Tuesday night school board meeting, a beleaguered Aurora charter school said it will attempt to more than double student enrollment by June in order to stave off closure at the end of the school year for financial issues.

Last week, Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn recommended that Aurora Community School be shut down at the end of the school year because of declining enrollment — unless the school rapidly enrolls students.

It’s a target the district says the school is unlikely to meet, but ACS officials verbally committed to the district school board Tuesday night.

ACS enrolled 104 students as of the Oct. 2 statewide student count. That’s less than half of its anticipated student enrollment of about 265 students spelled out in the school’s contract and the later-reduced target of 133 students, leading to budget shortfalls.

Munn is recommending that the school board revoke ACS’ charter at the end of the school year unless it can enroll 240 students for the next year and stabilize its budget.

The school focuses on students who come from often struggling families and offers a wide variety of social-service-like services in an effort to bolster academic achievement.

But the district said the “ACS enrollment history indicates it is very unlikely they will be able to make that enrollment figure and as such ACS is not financially viable.”

School board members agreed with the recommendation to require the school to ramp up enrollment before the year’s end.

“This is a model that we are all excited about, that we all want to see work, but that has to be implemented in a sustainable way,” outgoing board member Monica Colbert said of the school.

The agreement between ACS and APS includes a clause barring the charter school from appealing the decision to the state board of education.

ACS officials including co-founder Meredith Stolte said the school is now well-known enough to quickly enroll the almost 140 students by June.

The district has yet to draw up the paperwork binding the charter school to its enrollment jumpstarts, but officials anticipated they would this week. Board members would then vote on the proposal.

ACS’ financial instability stems in part from low enrollment.

According to the district, ACS is heavily reliant on private grants and donations but spends much more funding per-student compared with other district-authorized charter schools. Since the school also enrolled less than half the students originally planned for, it leaves educators without the much-needed per-pupil revenue that typically runs schools.

The school also budgeted for federal funding it did not receive.

ACS officials acknowledged budgeting mistakes but blamed the shortfalls on permitting and construction issues for their permanent location. The school was, at one point, operating out of a Crowne Plaza convention space and lost a few students when the school moved to a temporary space it now inhabits. That’s in a church near East Sixth Avenue and Chambers Road.

A presentation noted that the Crowne Plaza location was noisy and un-secure, but that students are now safe at the current church location.

It is unclear whether ACS will still forge ahead with building a permanent location. The school’s Board of Directors Chair Christine Levy declined to answer for The Sentinel Tuesday night.

ACS co-founder Meredith Stolte said the shortfalls forced the school to lay off several teachers, but the student-to-teacher ratio is still as low as expected because of the low student enrollment.

Before the ACS presentation, several ACS parents testified in favor of the school.
One parent is Shelly McKittrick, the Homelessness Program Director for the City of Aurora. She said her daughter is enrolled in the sixth-grade program at ACS after commuting for two years to a school in Boulder because APS schools weren’t working.
“In the 11 years of having children at school I have never felt so comfortable leaving her with a team of educators,” she said of ACS.

Munn’s recommendation to close the school is a twist for ACS, which opened in August to much excitement. School leaders touted a community-centric model staffed with social workers, therapists, food pantries and other resources for students and their families, administrators told the Sentinel last year. Organizers were excited to deliver a small-school environment focused on individual families, they said.

If its contract remains intact, ACS would eventually become a K-8 school. Currently, it only has grades kindergarten, 1, 2 and 6. APS says the school’s private funding efforts will keep it afloat through the school year, but that the budget situation is too tenuous for long-term operation.