Montessori charter school seeks outside approval after APS signals already low enrollment would hinder success

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AURORA | A Montessori charter school that wants to set up a series of “micro schools” in Aurora is seeking approval through the Charter School Institute of Colorado instead of the local school district. 

The Aurora Public Schools board of education voted at its meeting last week to allow the institute to consider the school without taking its own vote to approve or deny authorizing the charter after the district concluded the school’s plans to set up shop in Aurora would be unlikely to succeed.

The application comes as the district struggles with low enrollment and made the controversial decision at its Tuesday board meeting to close several schools that are under-enrolled. 

At the meeting, the board renewed its existing charter school contracts with AXL Academy and Global Village Academy for two years and Lotus School for Excellence and Vega Collegiate Academy for five years as part of the consent agenda. It also considered the application of Wildflower Montessori, the only new charter school application the district received as part of this year’s application cycle.

Wildflower is connected to the Wildflower Foundation, a nonprofit that supports a network of Montessori schools in 13 states and Puerto Rico. The school’s application said it wanted to establish a network of seven micro-schools in northwest and southeast Aurora beginning in 2023, located around the CU Anschutz Medical Campus and Buckley Space Force Base. Altogether, the schools would serve about 230 students in preschool through 6th grade.

During public comment, parents in favor of the school said that this would give local families an accessible option for Montessori education.

“This type of education is typically only available in a private school setting and unobtainable for a family like mine,” said Chris Herter, who has three young children and said that private school is not financially feasible for him and his wife. 

Others have said that opening charter schools, particularly those billed as having small class sizes, at the same time as the district is closing some schools due to low enrollment is hypocritical.

“Every time the district approves a charter they are contributing to declining enrollment,” Sable Elementary teacher Leslie Burton said at a May 14 rally.

An evaluation by the district ruled it was “unlikely” that Wildflower Montessori’s plans could be successfully implemented in Aurora. In a presentation to the school board, APS’ executive director of the Office of Autonomous Schools Jeff Park said that the school had been unable to demonstrate community need for more K-6 education in the region, which has experienced some of the steepest enrollment declines in the district.

Additionally, Park said that the school had been unable to clearly explain to the district how its funding model would be sustainable. Much of the school’s funding would come from a separate early childhood education program that parents would have to pay for. Along with creating equity concerns about whether paying preschool families would be more likely to receive a spot in the K-6 school, it did not take into consideration the universal preschool program that Colorado is in the process of implementing.

Wildflower had initially applied to be chartered with APS but in advance of the May board meeting asked the district to release it from consideration and to allow it to pursue being chartered through the Colorado Charter School Institute instead. After hearing a presentation from Wildflower’s leadership team, the board voted 5-2 to grant its request, with board members Michael Carter and Vicki Reinhard voting no.

Prior to the meeting several board members had raised concerns about the charter school charging tuition for preschool, but there was little discussion during the actual meeting and board members did not give a reason for their votes.

Board member Anne Keke offered to recuse herself from the vote because she is on the board of another Wildflower Foundation school, Flame Lily, but APS’ legal counsel Brandon Eyre said that since the two schools are separate legal entities that was not necessary. (Keke is no longer a member of the board, which is inactive, and told The Sentinel that the list of board members on Flame Lily’s website is out-of-date.)

The Charter School Institute was established in 2004 and authorizes charter schools across the state. A spokesperson said that Wildflower’s application to the institute will be due in July and its board will make a decision in October. If the application is approved, Wildflower will be able to establish schools in the same locations it proposed to APS, but without any connection to or involvement from the district.

The board had the option to vote to reject Wildflower’s application without releasing it to the CSI, but charter schools that are rejected by districts also have the option to appeal to the state Board of Education, which can overturn the decision.

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