Aurora Public Schools breaks ground on new science and tech charter school

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AURORA | A highly anticipated science, technology, engineering and math-centered charter school in north Aurora is no longer just a dream.

Aurora boosters braved a maze of excavators, half-built concrete walls and mountains of earth Thursday to break ground for Aurora Science and Tech. When construction wraps up on the Fitzsimons Innovation Campus, it will be the first school in Aurora run by charter school network Denver School of Science and Technology.

The school is already educating 168 sixth grade students that are co-located with another charter school, Rocky Mountain Prep, until next year. A grade will be added each year until AST has full middle and high schools on the campus. 

The first crop of students have already had lessons with scientists from University of Colorado Anschutz to learn about neurology, optics and biodiversity, said AST Founding School Director Peter Sherman. He said those interactions will be a key feature of the school. 

That’s why a bevy of groups including Aurora Public Schools, CU Anschutz and DSST aimed to put AST students directly on the medical campus. 

AST student Cassandra Maynard said she’s thankful to be enrolled at the school. Her favorite part of classes, she said, is that every student has their own laptop. 

Construction crews from head contractor Fransen Pittman have already built the school’s foundation and some walls of the future gym, cafeteria and kitchen. Above the dirt piles and other construction projects, the medical campus is in sight.  

But a crop of Aurora Public Schools officials, school board members, DSST leaders and CU Anschutz leadership donned hardhats Thursday to kick off the project. 

“We’re in a live construction zone, so it’s all dirt wherever you look,” school board President Marques Ivey said at the Thursday event. “But we know, soon, it’s gonna look like this picture down here,” he added, referencing a sleek rendering of the future building. 

DSST is a standout for its impressive success in educating a student body that is largely impoverished in nearby Denver Public Schools. The charter school network of 15 schools — now including AST — claims that every single graduate has been accepted to a four-year university or college since the first school opened its doors in 2004. 

In 2016, APS Superintendent Rico Munn invited DSST apply for a school opening in Aurora. The APS school board later agreed. 

Sherman said that most of AST’s first crop of students are from Aurora, but some are from Denver. 

Before Thursday’s pomp, DSST’s entrance in Aurora Public Schools was not without controversy. 

Charter schools remain divisive in the district because they operate autonomously but enjoy district funding. APS doled out $42.8 million to charter schools during the 2017-2018 school year. More of the schools opened this year, including AST.

The district has estimated the project to cost almost $40 million. For the next year of construction, APS will contribute about $12 million of a $300 million bond voters approved in 2016. 

Charter schools are usually on their own to find a space and pay for it. That can be a barrier for educators aiming to open a school. 

Aurora Education Association President Bruce Wilcox has spoken out in the past against DSST’s coming to Aurora. Wilcox did not respond to a request for comment. 

But AST will be only the first of four DSST schools in Aurora Public Schools, by means of a 2017 agreement between the charter school network and the school board.