Cherry Creek board to weigh charter school application

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AURORA | The Cherry Creek School District board of education is set to vote next month on whether to allow a new charter school to open — a move that could double the number of charters in CCSD and is sparking some controversy.

Backers of Heritage Heights Academy — which would be located in southeast Aurora — say it would fill a vital niche in a community where thousands of students are on a waiting list for the district’s lone charter school, Cherry Creek Academy on the district’s west side. Cherry Creek Academy’s wait list has about 3,300 students on it, according to the school, more than five times the size of the 570-student school.

This screenshot from the Academia website shows one of the charter school organization’s facilities. The group has filed an application to open a charter school in the Cherry Creek Schools District.
This screenshot from the Academia website shows one of the charter school organization’s facilities. The group has filed an application to open a charter school in the Cherry Creek Schools District.

But some say they are leery of Academica, the south Florida-based management firm — which has raked in millions of taxpayer dollars and is under federal investigation — tapped to administer the new school.

If the board approves the charter application for Heritage Heights Academy at their Oct. 12 meeting, the school would open next fall with about 460 students from kindergarten to sixth grade. By the school’s fifth year, backers hope to have about 690 students from kindergarten to eighth grade.

Backers have yet to find a building, but Jen Gibbons, one of the school’s founders, said they are focused on properties near E-470 and Smoky Hill Road and are already working with a real estate agent.

Gibbons said the school will follow the “core knowledge” curriculum used at Cherry Creek Academy and several other charters around the state. According to Gibbons’ application to CCSD, the curriculum uses a “detailed outline of grade-by-grade content to be taught, but leaves the specifics of how to teach open to the creativity and expectations of the individual schools.”

Gibbons said the school is needed because Cherry Creek Academy’s wait list is so long. She said her children were on the list for several years before she enrolled them in charter schools in Douglas County. She estimates several hundred families from CCSD have made a similar move to send their children to charters outside the district because they can;t get in at Cherry Creek Academy.

Backers of Heritage Heights Academy — which would be located in southeast Aurora — say it would fill a vital niche in a community where thousands of students are on a waiting list for the district’s lone charter school, Cherry Creek Academy on the district’s west side. Cherry Creek Academy’s wait list has about 3,300 students on it, according to the school, more than five times the size of the 570-student school.

In its first year, Heritage Heights would have a budget of about $3 million, almost all of it coming from $7,246 in tax dollars for each student.

If those students are from Cherry Creek — as Gibbons estimates the vast majority could be — that money would otherwise flow to CCSD.

Still, Gibbons said, she doesn’t expect the school to be a drain on CCSD’s finances. She claims many of the students will be students who would otherwise leave the district for a charter, be home schooled or attend a private school.

Academica, which operates more than 100 charter schools, primarily in Florida but also in Utah, California and other states, has been criticized in recent years for its business dealings. According to a Miami Herald investigation in 2011, the for-profit company pulled in more than $158 million in annual revenue.

The company has been criticized for having conflict of interests with people close to Academica serving on boards for individual charters, as well as for lucrative real estate dealings in south Florida. Those issues resulted in a federal investigation last year into Academica’s practices.

A spokesperson for the company did not return a call for comment.

Dean Titterington, who founded Cherry Creek Academy in 1995, said he “whole heartedly” supports a similar charter school opening on the east side of CCSD. And he said the plan Gibbons and her team have presented is mostly solid.

Gibbons said the school is needed because Cherry Creek Academy’s wait list is so long. She said her children were on the list for several years before she enrolled them in charter schools in Douglas County. She estimates several hundred families from CCSD have made a similar move to send their children to charters outside the district because they can;t get in at Cherry Creek Academy.

“I think the organizing group has it exactly right with their curriculum choices — core knowledge, Singapore math — and for all the right reasons,” he said.

But he has concerns about Academica.

For one, Titterington said, the school could be managed without the help of an outside agency, just the way Cherry Creek Academy is. That setup keeps parents as close as possible to all decision making, one of the benefits of a charter school in the first place, he said.

And the company’s past issues with potential conflicts of interests are concerning, he said. 

“They may not be planning on doing that here, but it is a red flag,” he said.

Tustin Amole, a spokeswoman for CCSD, said the district has questions about Academica, including about the federal investigation and its management practices. She said the district also needs the proposed school’s budget to be finalized and for them to find a building before anything can be finalized.

“I don’t want to say we have concerns until we have all the answers,” she said.

Ilana Spiegel, who has four children who attend Cherry Creek schools, said she is generally “agnostic” about charter schools as a concept, but she opposes the application from Heritage Heights.

Spiegel said her chief concerns are with Academica, in part because the company’s services — such as facilities management and long-range planning — are already handled at the district level, which seems like an inefficient use of resources. 

“And I have concerns about who they would be accountable to and how transparent they would be in their finances,” she said.

The company has been criticized for having conflict of interests with people close to Academica serving on boards for individual charters, as well as for lucrative real estate dealings in south Florida. Those issues resulted in a federal investigation last year into Academica’s practices.

But Gibbons said the concerns about Academica are overblown. For one, she said the company would largely provide “back-office support” such as lawyers and office managers. And the company would be working with Heritage Heights on a one-year contract so if the school’s local board of directors — which Gibbons said will make all decisions about the school — doesn’t like the company’s work, they can dump them after a year.

Gibbons said she estimates the school will pay Academica about $450 per student per year, and CCSD about $420 per student per year for making sure the school adheres to state standards, but those numbers won’t be finalized until an agreement is reached.

As for the criticism of Academica, Gibbons chalked that up to the company’s success making it an easy target.

“People are uncomfortable with people doing well and making money,” she said.