APS to consider sweeping changes, school ‘repurposing’

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AURORA | After years of discussion and planning, Aurora Public Schools has a vision of how to redesign its struggling, changing and contracting school system.

Its plans could involve expanding school boundaries and “repurposing” schools as social service centers and magnet schools while considering closing some schools over the next decade.

The redesign plans, which the district publicized last week, cap off the yearlong Blueprint APS process that began with public polling.

The APS school board mulled over these plans and others Tuesday night.

Board members say they support the enormous overhaul, which would also include redesigning schools to house preschool through eighth grades, with some added flexibility for students to travel between grades.

The district redesign is partly driven by declining enrollment, officials said.

APS is bracing for net losses of students at one of the highest rates of any Colorado school system, reflecting new community demographics. District officials say they district is also losing students because many students are leaving APS for other schools. Despite the losses centrally, Aurora is seeing strong growth on the city’s eastern flank.

The district is also struggling to accommodate a growing chasm in student demographics. New residents in east Aurora are generally much wealthier than those in the city’s northwest, requiring that APS caters to wildly diverse student bodies.

As a whole, the drain of students is expected to rob the district of some state funding and leave some classrooms emptier than they should be.

Without strategic changes, officials say, APS could become plagued by empty schools. The plans would essentially take the district from a typical system to one of which families may not be as familiar.

Districts nationwide typically build schools in single neighborhoods so that students can walk or ride the bus easily from their homes. Generally, students start at a neighborhood elementary school and then matriculate to a middle school before finishing into regional high schools with bigger student bodies.

APS students have also had the power in the last decade to travel across the district to other schools or more specialized programs, such as career training, or learn at home in an online school.

The details of the district redesign plans are still somewhat vague. However, the current proposal would expand an existing preference some parents have for more school choices and draw students from a wider area to save money on empty schools.

The plans propose creating some larger schools by expanding some neighborhood school enrollment boundaries. The district would also be divided into a number of regions.

These regions would have specializations based partly on their geography, according to district Superintendent Rico Munn. For example, schools near the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus might focus on teaching kids about science, technology, engineering and math. Or, students living in a new district region near Buckley Air Force Base could specialize in aerospace.

While the geography of the regions has been proposed, areas of emphasis has not.

Besides popular school designs and areas of emphasis, combining more grades in a single school could have other benefits.

Board member Cathy Wildman said there is evidence showing that students could learn better if they stay in one school from preschool through eighth grade. APS is proposing a shift to creating schools of that size. It could provide an opportunity for schools to group students with similar learning abilities even though they’re different ages.

Schools with declining enrollment could also be converted to magnet schools with specific educational themes or topics.

The district would likely provide busing across the district to get students from their neighborhood across town to the magnet school of their choice, Munn said.

The plans also suggest that some schools could be converted into community centers providing APS families with everything from clothes and food to therapy, daycare, tutoring and counseling.

Schools could also be closed, though no specific plans are on the table.

Munn said that the term “repurposing” is not a euphemism for school closure. The district has identified almost 15 schools that could be converted or closed, from Crawford Elementary in the north to Aurora Hills in the south of the district.

School board member Debbie Gerkin told Sentinel Colorado the complicated plans are still tentative and will evolve. However, she thinks the redesign is an opportunity to boost student success and meet some community needs.

Gerkin added that repurposing schools could cause some growing pains.

“Change is always hard,” she said. “All of these changes aren’t going to be easy.”

She said the board and future district officials would likely implement the plans bit-by-bit, instead of all at once, as the demographic changes unfold and reshape the city.