State gives tentative OK to Aurora charter school of the arts

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AURORA | Aurora kids will likely be attending a performing arts charter school next fall, despite local school board officials denying the school’s plan earlier this year.

Visions Performing Arts College-Prep won a conditional approval from the state charter school authorizer, the Charter School Institute, to open a school next fall tailored for students of color. VPAC organizers sought approval from CSI this summer after Aurora Public Schools officials decided the school should not operate in the district.

The institute is an independent arm of the Colorado Department of Education.

CSI staff agreed with school officials that VPAC can, and should, offer much-needed arts-based educations for mostly non-white Aurora kids, but the school still has to meet certain requirements before opening.

“The school’s mission and vision align with CSI’s mission of fostering school choices that meet the needs of the community,” said CSI Executive Director Terry Croy Lewis. “CSI specifically seeks to foster school options that work to close the opportunity gap. It is clear VPAC is committed to this as well.”

School founder and Executive Director Auset Maryam Ali said the CSI process was more fair than the one Aurora Public Schools officials conducted earlier in the summer, which concluded the school shouldn’t have official ties with the district.

“It was so equitable,” she said of the process with CSI. “They genuinely heard the community demand, they came to community meetings, they talked and got to know our community… and students.”

She added that APS officials reviewing their original application either didn’t look closely enough at the details or didn’t care enough to — “which was very hurtful to the community.”

VPAC is slated to tentatively open fall 2020 with a target of 100 sixth grade students. So far, the school is expecting 90 percent of its students to be racial minorities and a majority receiving free or reduced-priced lunches, a measure of poverty. The school will eventually build out to house grades six through 12.

To open, the school leaders must prove that enough students are enrolled in the school by certain dates, submit staff and budget plans and a host of other requirements. That includes a plan to reduce conflicts of interest.

If conditions are met, CSI will sign the school’s contract, said spokeswoman Amanda Oberg.

The school will replace Vision Performing Arts Company, an arts nonprofit that works in Aurora and nearby Denver Public Schools to provide workshops for dance, theater and spoken word poetry.

Ali has said she’s a playwright, a former dancer who has performed alongside rapper Jay-Z and a spiritual healer who assesses clients’ metaphysical energy and spiritual well-being.

Ali is also deeply involved in Aurora’s arts scene, having served on the City of Aurora Cultural Affairs Commission and managed her nonprofit for about 15 years.

A motivating factor for opening VPAC was, in Ali’s opinion, a lack of performing arts opportunities for low-income kids and students of color, citing tough competition for limited slots at schools like the Denver School of the Arts. An A Plus Colorado report three years ago found that low-income students in neighboring DPS were less likely to receive quality arts instruction compared to wealthier students.

Aurora state Sen. Rhonda Fields told The Sentinel in April that low-income kids and students of color can miss out on competitive arts programs.

“Some of these kids would not have access to these programs just because of their zip code,” she said then of Aurora students.

VPAC’s curriculum balances an emphasis on performing arts instruction with a popular idea touted by writer Malcolm Gladwell that anything can be perfected with 10,000 hours of practice.

Students will have standard core curriculum instruction in science, math and English language arts subjects and others, but also spearhead performance arts projects, such as learning and performing technical styles of poetry, stand-up comedy, some cosmetology and choreographed dance. Half of the school day will be devoted to arts trainings and educational programming.

The stated goal of the school is to provide a home where mostly black and Hispanic students can learn free of subtle racist tilts, which Ali said are common in schools and can squash student potential.

Ali said school leaders are considering two locations for the charter school but have not yet decided on its permanent home.

VPAC is looking for administrative and teaching staff, including arts positions, to help lead the school in its first year come August 2020.

According to the school’s budget proposal, traditional academic teachers will be paid  $45,000 per year. Arts staff will earn $35,000 annually, compared to the principal’s $70,000 salary.

Ali would earn $90,000 per year as the school’s Executive Director, down from the original proposal of $110,000, according to Oberg.

The approval from CSI means APS will not share district revenue with the school or spend money to oversee its financial and educational well-being. CSI, a wing of the state government, will contribute funds instead along with per-pupil funding from from the state legislature.

According to its budget, the bulk of VPAC funding will be standard revenue allocated by state government, plus state Department of Education grants and funds from CSI.

VPAC also expects to receive $300,000 in private funding from the New School Venture Fund. That organization touts high-profile donors including the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, founded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation also contributes, as does the Walton Family Foundation, the philanthropic wing of Walmart’s founding family.