Cherry Creek schools scrubs space charter school launch, prompting legal threats

Artist renderings of a possible design for Colorado Skies Academy charter school. Art courtesy of iLEAD Schools

AURORA | Officials from a proposed aerospace-focused charter school in the Cherry Creek School District are considering legal options, saying the district was wrong to revoke its conditional approval this week.

Officials from Colorado Skies Academy, part of multi-faceted expansion of Wings Over the Rockies Space and Air Museum onto Centennial Airport, said Cherry Creek district officials are wrong about the school not providing proof that the middle school will fill with students.

The school is the brainchild of former Aurora Public Schools Superintendent John Barry, a retired Air Force general and current head of Wings over the Rockies. The campus on Centennial Airport would be part of two new museums, focusing on space and flight. The school would focus on aerospace education and careers.

Tuesday’s decision ends months of negotiations between the district and Colorado Skies for the ambitious middle school project.

Last month, the Cherry Creek school board approved the charter school on the condition that it submit plans for special education and other requirements, including filing evidence that enough students were interested in the school to warrant a 2019 opening.

Abbe Smith, Cherry Creek school district spokesperson, said the district required specific forms called letters of intent to enroll.

Colorado Skies planned to enroll 225 students for the 2018-2019 school year. However, Smith said the school submitted only 24 intent letters by the district’s Nov. 15 deadline, amounting to insufficient interest in the school.

Barry provided The Sentinel with an aggregate list of about 200 interested parties, which he said Colorado Skies submitted to the Cherry Creek school board on time. Details show student names, addresses, home districts and other contact information, even the date they agreed to their intent to attend.

The list also included 24 complete applications from students, who Barry said are fully committed to the school. Barry said Cherry Creek never shared the intent form they’re asking for, and it’s not available on the district website.

“I’m hopeful that the confusion on bureaucratic terms will not get in the way of doing right by our kids,” Barry said, saying the denial appears to be over technical questions. “I can tell you we will have no problem filling that school.”

The mix-up sets Colorado Skies back from negotiating a Fall 2019 opening.

Smith said the charter school would be welcomed to re-apply next year.

Barry said, however, Colorado Skies has hired a lawyer to review the denial. He did not say whether the charter school intends to sue the school district, and that he was optimistic that the issue could be resolved with communication between the parties.

Another option, Barry said, is an appeal to the state Board of Education. The board could force Cherry Creek schools to reconsider its decision.

It wouldn’t be the first time the state board has over-ruled Cherry Creek schools on charter school matters.

The state board sent the application of Heritage Heights Academy back to the school district for reconsideration in 2016 after a successful appeal. The charter school was eventually authorized and is one of two charter schools in the district.

Colorado Skies Academy would have been only the third charter school in Cherry Creek Schools.

At the school, students would have sent scientific experiments to the International Space Station and worked in flight simulators at the Centennial Airport. The curriculum would have been project-based learning, where students work on a problem – colonizing Mars, for example – to learn about aviation, science, math, history, and other subjects.

The school was backed by iLead Schools, a California-based charter school network.

“Put simply, we have done everything the District has asked – and much more,” Colorado Skies board chairman Steve Goodman said in a press release. “There are hundreds of community members who helped make the Colorado Skies Academy dream a reality in the making. They will not be dissuaded and neither will we.”

Charter schools are public schools that have relaxed rules and can also raise money from private funds. The schools usually offer niche curricula and are widespread in neighboring Aurora Public Schools and Denver Public Schools districts.