APS says enrollment decline is less than expected

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AURORA | Charter school enrollment has buttressed an overall historic student enrollment decline in Aurora Public Schools, according to a district report to the school board Tuesday night.

The district, covering much of Aurora, was expected this year to continue years of heavy enrollment declines district staff have attributed to declining birthrates and development in some parts of the city. 

Although enrollment in traditional K-12 schools dropped by another approximately 500 students from the 2018-2019 school year to this September, charter school enrollment has continued to grow as more of the semi-autonomous schools opened this year.

In fact, this year saw the biggest leap in recent years of charter school enrollment, up 620 students from last year.

APS was one of the fastest-growing districts at the beginning of the decade. That trend more or less continued about 50 years of district growth as Aurora developed. 

The somewhat steady enrollment this year will impact Blueprint APS discussions in the months and years to come. The district school board is determining how to build out the district and repurpose some buildings in the next decades in light of enrollment projections and educational philosophies such as school choice. 

Enrollment also determines how much money the district receives from state government coffers. Fewer students could deprive the district of important per-pupil funding, although budget considerations were not part of the district report Tuesday. Critics of charter schools, including Aurora Education Association teacher union leaders, say the schools strip the district of much-needed funds for traditional charter schools.

APS shared $42.8 million of its districtwide funding with its charter schools in the 2017-2018 school year, above what it was required to. That represented more than 10 percent of its almost $400 million general fund, according to that year’s re-adopted budget.

Beginning in 2014, total student preschool through 12th grade enrollment began to slide from more than 42,000 students to 40,000, experiencing some of the highest student losses of any Colorado school district.

Enrollment has generally declined at districts in the Denver metroplex and the entire state, but APS outstripped those losses. 

District demographic analysts led by Josh Hensley, APS planning coordinator, expected the losses to continue this year. He presented the numbers to the APS school board Tuesday night.

But enrollment has sharply jumped back to a relatively stable rate, with neither large student growth nor losses. Kindergarten through 12th grade enrollment only dropped about 500 students total from the 2018-2019 school year to this September, compared to the expected loss of about 1,500 students. 

Hensley partially credited the slower decline to growing charter school enrollment, which has steadily increased in recent years despite losses in traditional k-12 programs. 

He noted the entrance of three new district-authorized charter schools that opened this year. That enrollment now nears 6,000 students in 13 schools, according to the report. It’s likely that new charter schools will request to operate in APS in this and future years. 

Hensley also noted significant growth on the city’s eastern flank, where new subdivisions seem to pop up every year. Northeast Aurora near the E-470 corridor leads the district with a moderately growing student body at schools including Vista Peak and Murphy Creek. 

But generally, most schools in the district are seeing moderate growth or decline, Hensley said. He’s also seen a recent growth in kindergarten enrollment that could mean more students funneled into APS schools. Developers are also eyeing east Aurora, representing the frontier of the Denver metroplex, as a fertile building ground for new, suburban neighborhoods requiring new schools. 

But Hensley also noted that APS isn’t out of the woods yet. 

Birth rates metrowide and in Aurora are still below pre-recession levels, according to presented data. That could mean less students for several more years, although Hensley expected student enrollment to bounce back to stabilization and growth by the early-to mid-2020s.