State school board forces Cherry Creek schools to reconsider charter school denial for Colorado Skies Academy

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that state school board member Rebecca McClellan voted for the remanding order. She opposed it. Sentinel Colorado regrets the error. 

DENVER | In a win for the would-be space-focused charter school Colorado Skies Academy, the state Board of Education on Wednesday forced the Cherry Creek School District to reconsider its rebuffed charter school application.

The state school board voted 5-1 to require Cherry Creek schools to reconsider the district’s move in November to squelch the charter school application. Board Member Rebecca McClellan, who represents the district where the proposed school would be located, opposed the remanding order.  Boulder representative Angelika Schroeder was absent.

The decision keeps alive Wings Over the Rockies aviation museum CEO John Barry’s dream of an aerospace middle school based on the Centennial Airport.

Barry hailed the decision as a win for Colorado students and added that he expects a very positive working relationship with Cherry Creek schools en route to opening the school next August.

“We will follow the remand process set forth in state statute,” Cherry Creek schools spokeswoman Abbe Smith said in a statement. “Our goal is for Colorado Skies Academy to be a successful school that ultimately reflects the high standards of the Cherry Creek School District.”

While the decision breathes new life into the charter school, it’s not a done deal, officials said. Cherry Creek could still revoke the conditional approval of the school in the future. The decision stipulated that Colorado Skies provide the district with adequate applications of enrollment next August to demonstrate interest in the school before it opens. Colorado Skies will also have to meet other conditions, including special education curricula, or face another roadblock from Cherry Creek schools.

If Colorado Skies must appeal to the state board again, the state could eventually force the opening of the school or grant a charter itself.

Unless the Cherry Creek school board revokes its conditional approval of the school once again, the school will could open August 2019 with an estimated 225 middle school students. The school’s project-based curriculum will have students learn about multiple subjects in a single project – for example, colonizing Mars – and work often with aerospace-industry personnel, flight simulators and real planes.

At the meeting, the state board considered whether the Cherry Creek school board was too hasty and unreasonable when it revoked the school’s conditional approval because of district officials said was an apparent lack of interest in the school.

Barry, who was a combat pilot and Air Force general before he served as school superintendent in Aurora, said in his opening argument that the school will inspire students to pursue a career in aerospace, a booming industry that he said is suffering from a scarcity of air traffic controllers, pilots and mechanics.

The meeting Wednesday morning was packed with supporters of the school wearing blue Colorado Skies Academy t-shirts. Many of the blue-clad school supporters commuted from across the metro area to show board members there was ample support for the school, they said.

In Colorado, parents can opt to send their children to schools outside of their local school district.

Brigette Rodriguez, a Longmont resident, said her husband is an air traffic controller and regularly works six-day weeks because there are not enough workers. She supported the school’s goal to eventually place more workers in Colorado’s thriving aerospace industry, one of the strongest in the country, and because she thinks project-based learning is more effective than traditional teaching methods.

Lara Fordis, a Broomfield resident and supporter of the school, said her eighth grader was enrolled in a project-based learning charter school in California and “loved it.”

“I wish that this would have been around for my son,” she said of Colorado Skies Academy.

In its decision, the state board also stipulated that Colorado Skies Academy has until August to demonstrate full enrollment of the school but that it cannot ask for additional funds from Cherry Creek schools.

During the hearing, Cherry Creek schools Superintendent Scott Siegfried said Colorado Skies would not be able to fully fill its schools with students, resulting in a monetary drain on the school district.

That sentiment was echoed by Melissa Scully, a parent of two students enrolled in Cherry Creek schools. She called the state board’s decision “frustrating.”

She said that, if opened, the school would exacerbate low funding in Cherry Creek schools by forcing the district to pick up the tab and re-place students if the school failed.

Charter schools are public schools that are funded equally with traditional schools under state law, but can also seek private funding. Barry said donations from aerospace companies and scholarships will help prospective students with extracurricular activities, like flying in planes, that will require a fee.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported the vote breakdown. Board Member Rebecca McClellan of the 6th Congressional District voted against the proposed order Wednesday. The Sentinel regrets the error.