STEM's proposed Sterling Ranch school gets pushback at board meeting

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STEM School Highlands Ranch’s application to build a new school in Sterling Ranch was met with mixed responses from the public, including allegations from Kendrick Castillo’s father that STEM doesn’t keep its students safe enough.

STEM presented its plan to replicate the unique problem-based learning model it calls KOSON at a new K-12 school in Sterling Ranch to the Douglas County School Board on April 26. STEM was one of three charter schools to apply to open in the county next year, as well as Lehman Academy and Novastar Academy, which would be new to the district.

Most board directors didn’t express strong feelings either way for the proposed STEM School Sterling Ranch, but Director David Ray did question the logic of putting a charter school in Sterling Ranch when it doesn’t yet have a district school.

Ray also noted it would limit options for special education students. 

“The reason I ask about your special education certainly is that without a neighborhood school in that community, we don’t have the potential of placing students into a significant needs program,” he said. 

KOSON CEO and former STEM executive director Penny Eucker said approving a charter doesn’t preclude other schools from the area and she would be happy to see options for parents and students.

“I think it would be great for families to have choice, so a district school and STEM and other charters,” Euchre told the board. “You know if you have more than one child that they’re completely different.”

Parents and community members were more vocal than the board, with many opposing STEM’s application and echoing Ray’s concerns about the lack of a district school in the neighborhood. 

“Approving STEM and specifically approving STEM to occupy our only current site set aside for a school will set a standard that is fundamentally contrary to prioritizing neighborhood schools in the district’s newer and faster growing communities,” a Sterling Ranch resident said during public comment. “Many residents share reservations that if the board approves the application and a bond is passed in the near future, though no additional school sites have yet to be dedicated by the developer, the probability for a neighborhood school in the near future would be jeopardized.”

John Castillo, father of Kendrick Castillo, who died in the 2019 STEM shooting, told the Douglas County board he didn’t support another STEM school because of its inability to protect students like his son.

“We feel that it’s not a safe charter and over three years, there hasn’t been enough done,” he said. “For Pete’s sake don’t allow STEM to replicate another charter until they can prove that they’ve made bounds and discussed what they’ve done with transparency.”

STEM Director of Communications Nicole Bostel told Colorado Community Media on April 29 that she couldn’t respond to Castillo’s specific comment because of ongoing litigation, but did speak to some of the safety measures STEM has installed at Highlands Ranch.

Bostel said several security systems are in place, including a background check program for visitors, an on-site school resource officer and a shot detection system that sends the school into lockdown, in addition to bullet-proofed windows and security doors. 

A few parents did speak out in support for another STEM school and shared how the school’s problem-based learning model was crucial to making their students successful learners. 

“Right now, all kids in Sterling Ranch have access to DCSD neighborhood schools, bus service and special needs programs,” said one mom during public comment. “Access to STEM is limited because there is no bus service and spots are limited. Adding a STEM school in Sterling Ranch will not take away existing DCSD schools or resources for special needs children either. Instead it would expand school choice for all.”

STEM’s presentation and application also gave more details about the proposed Sterling Ranch school, which would initially be an elementary school with the intent to ultimately teach K-12. 

It’s first year would serve just 100 students in grades K-3 with 10 instructional staff and five administrative staff. The estimated operating budget is $1.4 million for the first year.

Bostel said 98 families have signed the school’s intent to enroll form with just four of the families coming from outside the Sterling Ranch and Roxborough communities. Those 98 families represent interest in grades K-5, Bostel said.

Despite the negative comments, Bostel said STEM feels the presentation went well and they have a good chance of being approved.

“We understand that we’re not going to meet everybody’s needs because we are focusing on STEM,” Bostel said. “So we understand that if we were to open in that particular area, there are families who wouldn’t send their students to our school, however, we do have a lot of families interested.”

Douglas County’s board will make the final decision to approve or deny the application at its June 7 meeting. Until then, Bostel said STEM will ramp up community outreach, answer questions about the potential future school and grow the intent to enroll.

STEM is also in the process of applying to open an elementary school in the Denver Public School District on the same timeline of the Sterling Ranch school.

STEM School Highlands Ranch, Sterling Ranch, new school, Douglas County School Board

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