OFF COURSE: ACS charter school former staffers say school is consumed by chaos

Children get recess time in a fenced in enclosure, Jan. 30, at the Aurora Community School.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

AURORA | Children playing in parking lots and alleyways strewn with trash and broken glass. Principals accused of asking staff to lie to parents, to fill in false grades for classes that didn’t exist. An entire school based out of a hotel conference room.

Former staff members have no shortage of alarming stories from their tenure at Aurora Community School, a fledgling charter school in north Aurora.

ACS already has orders to enroll more students and stabilize its financial situation or shut down at the end of the school year. But four former staff members contacted Sentinel Colorado to say the nascent charter school is rife with mismanagement, safety breaches and ethical problems. They say the school should close immediately.

The former employees held a variety of roles in the close-knit school and requested anonymity when speaking with The Sentinel to protect their ability to find new or keep jobs. The Sentinel honored the request given the gravity of allegations about an unsafe learning environment. Education officials agree that school whistleblowers can suffer backlash after leaving a school. The employees were interviewed separately, and corroborated details.

One former employee, Alexandra Jackson, agreed to speak on the record. Jackson held the role of Restorative Justice Coordinator, helping the largely at-risk student body to develop social and emotional skills.

Jackson previously worked as a clinical case manager for the Mental Health Center of Denver. She earned a Master’s Degree in Social Work from the University of Denver.

“It was terrible,” she said of ACS. “It was setting the kids up for failure from day one when they didn’t have a school.”

Another former staff member agreed that students at the school are improperly being handled.

“Our biggest concern is saving those kids,” said a second educator, saying they left the school amid layoffs and parents enrolling their students elsewhere.

School officials, offered details of allegations made by staff members, said they would not comment because the allegations were made off the record.

School leadership said ACS will work to stay open and maintain a safe environment. Peter Mason, vice president of communications for the Colorado League of Charter Schools, responded on behalf of the school.

He called most of the allegations, “misleading at best and inaccurate at worst.

“The school is going to decline to respond to them individually because they are being lodged anonymously,” Mason said in an email to The Sentinel.

Belying the criticism, some parents said they appreciate what the school has done so far in its first year.

Parent Shelley McKittrick said her daughter is thriving at the school.

McKittrick said her daughter has struggled to feel comfortable in chaotic environments at other schools. That speaks to how safe ACS is, she noted.

ACS opened in August 2019 but operated out of a Denver Crowne Plaza hotel and then a church because of months-long delays building its own space.

The school is relying heavily on private donations and grants, with orders to more than double enrollment near the end of this school year or be shut down by Aurora Public Schools, which loosely oversees the school. As a charter school, ACS is run exclusively by non-school-district staff. Although it is a public school, ACS is mostly autonomous and has more freedom from district oversight of day-to-day conditions. It also has a longer leash regarding teacher pay, and how and where students are taught.

The four former staff members who spoke with The Sentinel said the school’s poor execution of a compelling concept was heart-breaking.

All the former employees said they were originally energized and passionate about the school’s mission: Educating children from struggling families with help from mental health professionals, social workers and empathetic teachers.

The school aimed to embody “community school” values. It’s an educational model popular with local public school teachers, and it’s gaining traction in the state, local officials say. Even Aurora teacher union President Bruce Wilcox, who generally opposes new Aurora charter schools, supported the school’s concept in 2018.

School co-principal Jessica Martin said last year that ACS would be open weekdays from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., so parents and students could utilize the school’s social services or simply be in a “safe space” while accommodating parent work schedules.

Former staff say the school deliberately attracted students for whom other schools were not working.

Many students came from working poor families with absent parents, staff said. Some are dyslexic, suffering from mood disorders or were already falling behind in school when they enrolled at ACS. Some students have mental health issues and were self-harming, said one former staffer. Some were at risk of suicide.

Five months after the school opened, ACS is still operating out of a temporary space not designed to be a school. The former staff members and school leadership have said the school’s problems are rooted in its space challenges.

The future site of the Aurora Community School at 15550 E. 6th Ave. Despite what the signage reads, the school has yet to open.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

Most charter schools overseen by APS are typically on the hook to find and pay for their own educational space. Some of the charter schools in Aurora operate out of strip malls and churches.

Instead of renting a facility, ACS originally opted to build its own educational space within a larger building near Chambers Road and East Sixth Avenue. But the process stalled. That space is still not ready, but it will be soon, school leaders said, not indicating a firm date.

One former employee said school leaders should have delayed the school’s opening when confronted with the loss of their planned space.

But ACS opened in August as a school with kindergarten, first, second and sixth grades. Slightly more  than 100 students were enrolled in October, according to the district — 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.

The former staffers said they were notified one week before opening that the school would operate not out of its own space, but in a ballroom in the Crowne Plaza hotel near Interstate 70.

“We get there, and nothing is ready,” Jackson said. “It is basically a ballroom with plywood put in as walls — no ceilings, no walls anywhere in the school…. You could tell hotel management did not want us there.”

Staff from a division of Aurora Public Schools, the Office of Autonomous Schools, visited ACS.

Corey Christiansen, a spokesperson for the district, said the school district officials saw the plywood walls, ballroom and “immediately raised concerns about security. It required ACS to submit a plan for urgent action to make significant modifications to the building’s safety plan to increase student safety.”

Staff visited the school 12 times since the beginning of the school year, Christiansen said. The district maintains it conducted “appropriate oversight.”

In response to allegations listed in this article, Christiansen did not address details but he noted APS has already sanctioned the charter school. In October, the district told ACS it was violating its contract to operate and must make changes or close at the end of the school year.

The first staffer interviewed called the opening month “hell,” describing a chaotic environment where it was very hard to keep track of students, who could be rowdy.

Unlike a typical school, ACS had no security systems in place, a second staffer said. In an era of mass shootings, many schools in APS are secure, with door locking systems and security scanners that run background checks on visitors. The second staffer said ACS had no such systems in place.

“Anybody can come in through a cracked door,” that staff member said. “Somebody could’ve taken a child out a side door and done who-knows-what.”

Not long after, the school was moved into a single conference room in the Crowne Plaza.

The room often was crowded with 30 to 60 students, Jackson said. At times, there were up to 90 students in there. Classes were rotated into a lobby, to the chagrin of hotel management.

To alleviate the stress of packing students into a room, all the staff members said principals asked them to take students on a series of field trips for a week. They said parents were informed of the trips, but not that they were scheduled to get students out of the hotel.

Staff members said they obliged. The former employees said they took the students to the aquarium and an animal sanctuary. There, sanctuary workers commented that not enough chaperones were watching the students, they said.

In late September, ACS moved into a new space at Restoration Christian Fellowship, a church  at 15640 East Sixth Ave.

Restoration Christian Fellowship houses the Aurora Community School.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

There, children were playing in a parking lot and alley near heaps of trash and broken glass, Jackson said. There’s currently no playground at the school, which is not un-common for Aurora charter schools.

Former staff said kids playing in parking lots became a major issue for student safety, with teachers “throwing themselves in front of cars” as they sped through the lot, according to a third staffer interviewed by The Sentinel. A second- grader was reportedly hit in the head with a piece of wood and began bleeding. More parents pulled their students from the school because they were getting hurt, the staff members all said.

The principals installed a big, metal fence near the school in a circle to provide a playing space.

“It looks like a big jail yard — there are no balls, no toys, nothing,” Jackson said.

The school remains in that space now. It’s unclear how many students currently attend, as school officials declined to provide the information.

By October, Aurora Community School had not enrolled enough students and was experiencing financial trouble. That meant some staff were left go later that month, according to the former employees.

Earlier, in August, ACS was staffed with 20 employees. Former staff said this number was important to achieving the school’s mission as a hub for mental health staff and social workers to work with impoverished and academically challenged students.

By November, that number had dropped to 12 staff members, Jackson said, including the two co-principals.

Some parents began pulling their children out, Jackson said. But many families stuck by the school. Remaining staff were spread thin and asked to fill in roles with no relation to their formal job descriptions. They were overworked and stressed but stayed for the sake of the students, said all the former staff who spoke with The Sentinel.

By the time report cards were scheduled to go out in November, the school was missing a sixth-grade science teacher and a gym teacher, a third staffer said.

Two of the former teachers said the disorganization meant the science class was never replaced, and separately heard co-principals telling teachers to grade students for instruction that did not occur.

The second staff member speaking with The Sentinel said Co-Principal Meridith Stolte instructed a teacher to “just put the grades in.” The former employee isn’t sure who physically recorded the manufactured grades that ended up in November report cards, but said all students got the same middle-of-the-road grades. Such grades were provided for science and gym classes, staff members said.

That former employee said at least some second-grade math scores were arbitrarily filled in as well.

The third staffer attended a staff meeting in October and said co-principal Martin also instructed a teacher to fill in a progress report with “sham grades” for subjects that weren’t being taught. Those grades later made their way into report cards, according to this former employee.

Jackson said a person they had never met before was tapped to be a gym teacher and would sometimes appear when school donors or school district overseers were slated to visit the school — and then leave.

The second staffer said physical education grades were filled in on report cards as well, despite no regular class having taken place.

For now, APS officials say enrollment and facility issues are paramount. The APS school board has ordered ACS to enroll 240 students for the next school year to stabilize its budget. It also must move into its permanent space by June or close.

ACS Board Chair Christine Levy said the school is working on enrolling the required number of students. Based on district October counts, the school has to more than double its enrollment.

Some of the former staffers speaking with The Sentinel blamed principals Stolte and Martin for trying to keep the school open at any cost without regard to student success.

“It seemed like the school was in survival mode, but it seems like the principals are trying to keep the school going for themselves,” the second staffer said.