Local charter school put on hold

Posted 3/1/10

A plan for a proposed charter high school in Highlands Ranch has been delayed for one year after enrollment issues caused fewer students to …

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Local charter school put on hold


A plan for a proposed charter high school in Highlands Ranch has been delayed for one year after enrollment issues caused fewer students to officially sign up.

The organizers of STEM High School and Academy withdrew their charter application during a Douglas County School District Board of Education meeting Feb. 22 after being unable to meet criteria outlined in a conditional charter approved by the district in December.

Miscommunications doomed the planned August opening for the charter school, and there were not sufficient funding commitments to go forward, said Barry Brannberg, a volunteer helping to organize the school.

About 375 students enrolled before the deadline, but an amended conditional charter required 426 students to ensure adequate funding. The school originally secured more than 426 online enrollment forms, but they were deemed invalid because they did not have a parent’s signature. District leaders provided a five-day extension Feb. 16 to gather the signatures but declined to allow for additional time to process the paperwork because of deadlines related to the budgeting process.

The board of education pledged to continue working with the STEM coordinators as they prepare to open near Highlands Ranch Parkway and Ridgeline Boulevard in fall 2011.

Sarah Siegler, who enrolled her fifth grader at the school, was disappointed with the decision to delay, but said “more time will only make the school stronger.” Siegler heard about the school at a dinner party and took immediate interest because of charter schools’ “proven record and dedication to students.”

“[STEM has] a fantastic model. The partnership of business and education is revolutionary and is probably the next step of where education has to go,” said Siegler, who has plans to enroll her other three children STEM once they reach the appropriate age.

STEM will serve grades 6-12, but will start classes for grades 6-9 and add one grade each year until it reaches its full enrollment of 1,100 students. The school had a tentative agreement to move into a pair of buildings vacated by a publishing company and was hoping to construct a 150,000-square-foot campus within five years.

A team of private investors who planned to provide funding to secure the lease balked because of the recent uncertainty, and the lending crisis has made it more difficult for the school to obtain a loan.

“The only collateral we had was the kids [and associated funding],” Brannberg said. “The investors believed in the school, but it was a matter of headcount.”

The middle school and high school will eventually be separated into two buildings.

STEM volunteer and marketing director Marilyn Manning said “there is a pretty high chance” the school would have opened this year if not for miscommunications with Douglas school district staff that led to the enrollment snafu.

Many of those who enrolled this year are guaranteed a spot in the school when it opens for classes in fall 2011; leaders are still trying to determine whether to add a tenth grade class to accommodate those who would have been in ninth grade this year.

Acting STEM president Mark Baisley expressed disappointment about the one-year delay, but has been encouraged by the continued support from parents who enrolled their children and the business industry.

Those opposed to the school say district budget issues should have pushed the opening of the school out anyway. Some pointed to the confusion with enrollment forms as an example of the STEM officials’ lack of qualifications to launch a school.

Brannberg acknowledges the school organizers are “new at this,” but said STEM leaders followed every instruction from DCSD staff members. The decision to wait until next year was based on a lack of adequate funding because they could not secure enough signed enrollment forms before a strict deadline.

“The main reason we did this is because financially it’s pretty unstable,” he said. “To operate a school was too big of a risk because per pupil revenue could take a downward hit. We’re not willing to take that chance.”


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