Online/Offline

Why Aurora’s superintendent wants to close HOPE Online’s campuses in his district

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
A HOPE Online student works during the day at an Aurora learning center.

AURORA — Aurora Public Schools, which is undertaking efforts to improve its failing schools, wants a struggling online charter school to stop operating its learning centers in the district’s boundaries.

In an unusual move, Superintendent Rico Munn told the district’s school board in May that it should reject a renewal agreement with HOPE Online Learning Academy. That would effectively shutter the multi-district charter school’s five Aurora locations, where about 400 students come to study on computers and receive instruction.

Munn and other district officials cited HOPE’s dismal student achievement as their rationale for rejecting what would normally be a standard renewal with the school, which has operated in Colorado’s third largest city since 2005.

Most charter schools in Colorado are authorized by a single school district, even those such as HOPE with students throughout the state.

The online school initially was authorized by the rural Vilas School District. A state audit in 2006 found problems with HOPE, including the commingling of state dollars with private school tuition. In 2008, citing growth that required it to find a home in a larger district, HOPE reached an agreement to work under the auspices of the Douglas County School District.

That put a charter school that educates a large number of students living in poverty under a wealthy school district with a history of high academic achievement.

Munn’s recommendation resurfaces longstanding questions about the quality of instruction that online schools like HOPE provide while employing few licensed educators and little oversight compared to most schools.

Online school operators argue they educate students who struggle to succeed at traditional brick-and-mortar schools, and that should be taken into account when considering performance. Some students prefer to work at their own pace, or struggle with socialization.

Anthony Worysz, who attends HOPE Power Academy, said he felt lost at the bigger schools he attended in Aurora and Westminster.

“I couldn’t find my place at school,” Worysz told the Aurora school board at its May 17 meeting. “It seemed like no one cared if I was there or not. It was so easy to disappear.”

But during the past decade, state officials and news outlets have raised questions about how well those students are being served.

Like other schools in Aurora, HOPE’s elementary and middle schools are on the state’s accountability watchlist because its students — most of whom are poor — lag far behind their peers on the state’s standardized tests and other measures such as graduation rates.

HOPE’s high school, which has a special designation to serve the state’s most at-risk students, is not at risk of state sanctions.

Because HOPE is authorized by the Douglas County School District, Munn and his administration have no say on how the school operates — or tries to improve. At the same time, the Aurora school district is not held liable for HOPE’s poor performance on standardized tests, as it is with its own schools.

Nevertheless, Munn encouraged his school board to hold HOPE to the same standards as his district-run schools.

“We fully recognize that we have limited authority,” Munn said. But, “we simply can’t continue down a path of significantly low student achievement,” he said.

Heather O’Mara, the charter school’s CEO, told Aurora school board members that her team, like theirs, has taken steps to improve. New data shows that students who stick with HOPE for more than two years show better academic growth than at their previous schools on state and local assessments, she said.

At the board meeting and in a subsequent interview with Chalkbeat, O’Mara said HOPE has added staff at its learning centers, provided employees more training and better aligned curriculum to the state’s standards.

“What’s important is that we have quality teachers, quality curriculum, and we’re working together to make a difference for students,” O’Mara said.

A closer look at HOPE

The way HOPE works makes it one of the most unique charter schools in Colorado.

Ana Gramajo, left, is the co-director of HOPE Online Action Academy in Aurora. Here she works with a student on reading.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Ana Gramajo, left, is the co-director of HOPE Online Action Academy in Aurora. Here she works with a student on reading.

In the state’s eyes, HOPE is three schools — an elementary, middle and a high school. Those schools combined have 29 different campuses, or learning centers, in 11 districts. HOPE learning centers can be found in strip malls, churches and empty schools.

HOPE’s agreements with seven school districts were renewed this year.

Munn is not the first Colorado education official to try and shutter HOPE’s learning centers. In 2011, the Eaton school board attempted to close HOPE’s learning center. That decision was overturned by the State Board of Education.

Nearly 3,000 students were enrolled at HOPE learning centers this school year.

The state school accountability system doesn’t rate online learning centers, making it impossible for parents and taxpayers to know how learning centers compare. But O’Mara said HOPE’s staff does track those results.

“We treat each learning center like a separate classroom,” she said, adding that when results improve at one learning center, staff tries to share what works across all learning centers.

In some instances, HOPE has closed low-performing centers. At one point, HOPE had as many as 79 centers across the state.

Unlike other online schools that students connect to at home, HOPE students are required to attend class every day at a learning center. In the past, students would spend most of their time on computers working through lessons in English, math, science and social studies. But in recent years, HOPE has pushed for more offline instruction in an effort to boost achievement.

At HOPE Action Academy in Aurora, elementary school students spend about half their day on a computer. When they reach middle school, that increases to about 60 percent. High schoolers spend more than two-thirds of their day on a computer.

Learning centers are run by “community leaders,” not licensed principals. Most classrooms are led by “mentors,” most of whom aren’t licensed to teach. However, each learning center is staffed by at least one licensed teacher and special education teacher. HOPE pays Douglas County schools $1.4 million for its special education teachers.

More online schools still flunking

In 2011, an investigation by Rocky Mountain PBS I-News and Chalkbeat (then EdNews Colorado) found online schools across the state were receiving millions in tax dollars for students who dropped out at a much higher rate, students who completed most of their coursework online fared worse on state exams, and the state had little authority to intervene.

Little has changed since then.

A Chalkbeat review of the Colorado’s school accountability watchlist found that a quarter of all online schools — including HOPE — were flagged for poor student performance in 2014, the last year schools were rated. Only about 7 percent of the state’s brick-and-mortar schools made the list.

And recent research by the America’s Promise Alliance, a coalition of education advocacy groups, found the nationwide graduation rate for online schools is just 40 percent, the New York Times reported.

“I don’t think online schools should go away,” said Nora Flood, executive director of the Colorado League of Charter Schools. “But I think we really need to know more about them. And we really need to make sure they are quality options for kids and families.”

What’s next

The Aurora school board will take up the HOPE issue at its June 7 meeting. If the board takes Munn’s recommendation, HOPE has signaled it will appeal that decision to the State Board of Education, which has a history of being friendly to charter schools.

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn.
PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn.

However, some state board members have indicated they will take a tougher stance on chronically failing schools in 2017, when the state’s accountability timeline runs out. Schools that haven’t turned things by then face state sanctions that could include closure or takeover by a different management organization.

HOPE’s agreement with the Douglas County School District is also up for renewal in 2018. Tom McMillen, Douglas County’s director of choice programming, said the the district has worked with HOPE to improve student academic performance.

Among the steps he spotlighted: providing more training for teachers, mentors and learning center leaders; pushing for more mentors to become licensed teachers, and working with the charter school to increase the student to teacher ratio.

“Depending on the improvements, that’s where we’d begin discussion about modification to their contracts or renewal,” McMillen said.

Last spring, a panel of educators commissioned by the state to review HOPE and other schools on the state’s watchlist suggested the school — or some functions such as hiring and training — be turned over to new management.

The panel, which credited the school’s central administration team as being strong, also suggested the school drop its “online” label to better reflect its use of offline instruction and consider an authorizer other than Douglas County that could provide more training and oversight.

Additionally, the panel concluded that HOPE should find new board members to better govern the online school.

“Based on interviews with the Board, they were unaware of the school’s current performance concerns and did not set clear, high expectations for performance against which they held leaders accountable,” according to state documents.

O’Mara said she and her team are prepared to prove their worth.

“It’s our responsibility to show why HOPE is in the best interest of students, family and the community,” she said. “It’s our responsibility to show the growth students are making.”

'Nothing magic'

Stay the course: Struggling Aurora Central will not face drastic state-ordered changes

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Aurora Central High School has been labeled as failing by the state for five years.

Aurora Central High School will continue ongoing reforms but with help from a management company, avoiding more dire consequences for its chronic low performance over more than five years.

During a hearing Wednesday, the State Board of Education unanimously voted to allow staff to finalize a plan that will give the struggling school at least two more years to keep working on reforms rolled out this school year. The board will vote on the blueprint next month.

“There’s nothing magic about this recommendation,” Katy Anthes, Colorado’s education commissioner, told the board Wednesday. “It just takes an incredible amount of work and dedication. We think the staff members here have that dedication.”

The state department’s recommendations mirrored the district’s proposal, an outgrowth of the state’s approach of working with districts and schools facing state intervention to reach agreements before the accountability hearings.

Aurora Central’s last year of data showed declines in student performance. Attendance data presented Wednesday also has been going in the wrong direction. In the 2015-16 school year, daily attendance was 76.5 percent, significantly lower than the state average attendance rate of 93.2 percent.

But state officials told the board they saw the school’s culture improving, giving them hope the plan could lead to improvements. They also cited a rising graduation rate in the last school year.

“We believe a rigorous implementation of this plan can see rapid change in student achievement and growth,” Anthes said.

Aurora Central is the first large high school to face the state for possible sanctions after reaching its limit of years of low performance. The school enrolls about 2,100 students, of which 70 percent are still learning English as a second language.

Since the start of this school year, Aurora Central has been operating under innovation status, which gives it more autonomy from state and district rules.

Under the innovation plan, the school day at Central was extended, and the school was allowed to reject teachers the district wanted placed there and have more control over all staffing.

District and school officials Wednesday answered questions from board members about education for second language learners, serious attendance problems and their work to engage the community.

Rico Munn, superintendent of Aurora Public Schools, told board members that community support of the school had significantly increased in the last year, as seen by donations to the school and community organizations that are working with school staff.

Board member Pam Mazanec questioned Aurora officials about the amount of money from multiple grants they had already been provided for school reforms in the last four years and why they hadn’t produced good results.

School officials said money spent in the past on teacher training was not followed with help to use the new techniques in the classroom. They said the number of instructional coaches at the school this year has significantly increased in an effort to change that.

“I don’t believe the systems and structures were in place,” said Jennifer Pock, assistant principal at Central. “There was not a time for teachers to collaborate. The support is very different this year to carry on the work that began.”

The new wrinkle in the state improvement plan is the addition of a management company, Boston-based Mass Insight. The company’s work will be in partnership with the district, but exact details of what the company would be in charge of are still being determined.

An official from Mass Insight said Wednesday the company intends to question the district and suggest what to focus on or change.

The school district will be required to provide the state updates about progress at least once a year.

staying the course

Why state education officials think Aurora Central’s latest reforms deserve more time

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia

State education officials believe Aurora Central High School should get at least two more years to see its latest reforms through — with some help.

Last year, Aurora Public Schools went to the state and won innovation status for the struggling school. That gave the 2,100-student school more autonomy from certain rules and laws. Teachers could be hired and dismissed by school officials. The school day was lengthened and programming could stray from what the district was doing.

Some parts of the plan have been a challenge for the school, however, district officials acknowledge in documents.

Many teachers were new and unprepared for the work. The school has struggled to hire for certain positions. And teachers don’t have enough planning time to make student advisory periods “meaningful.”

Still, state officials evaluated the school’s progress and found hope that the plan still could lead to better student performance, and also that it has broad community support.

When state officials and Aurora leaders appear before the state Board of Education on Wednesday, they will present a plan to continue the school’s innovation plan while handing over management of some pieces of it to a Boston-based company. The board must approve the plan for it to move forward.

“Knowing that Aurora Central is a complicated and challenging environment, and knowing that their data is low and they’ve not demonstrated a lot of progress, we believe there are components on that innovation plan that have promise if implemented well and if led well,” said Peter Sherman, executive director for school and district performance at the Colorado Department of Education. “We do believe the management partners piece is key.”

State officials were more critical of the plan in earlier feedback to the district, citing concerns about an aggressive timeline, questions about school leadership and more.

Aurora Public Schools would not make anyone available for an interview to discuss the plan, and the district’s written responses to emailed inquiries left many questions unanswered.

At a recent board meeting, district officials presented a brief update on Central’s accountability plan and said they were confident about the recommendation and the progress at Central.

“We feel that we’ve been aggressive in trying to turn around Central,” Lamont Browne, executive director of autonomous schools for Aurora, told the school board.

About 80 percent of Aurora Central’s more than 2,100 students are identified as low-income based on qualifying for free or reduced price lunches. About 70 percent of students are English language learners, and 12 different languages are spoken.

Less than half of the students at Central graduate within four years. Chronic absenteeism is a “significant problem for two-thirds of all students,” according to the documents the district submitted to the state. The number of students meeting expectations based on state testing has consistently been lower than most schools in the district and in the state.

The plan presented to the state last year for increased autonomy intended to address the school’s issues by creating competency-based learning, which allows students to earn credit as they prove they’ve learned a standard. That would give students more flexibility to earn credit and get lessons that are personalized.

The model has been piloted this year at Central in a limited way during one period of the day for ninth graders. Earlier in the year, Browne said moving to the model was slowed because there were too many new teachers and they needed more training. Now, the school has created a group to look at how to continue the roll-out of the model to 10th graders next year.

The school’s plan also called for a work group to address attendance issues. But according to the documents submitted to the state, the group had to narrow its focus to a certain group of students because of limited “manpower.”

Teachers were supposed to have more joint planning time, but were also asked to do home visits to increase parent engagement and run advisory periods that would allow adults to address students’ non-academic issues, including attendance problems.

Getting teachers and students to buy into the advisory periods has been a problem, the district’s documents state.

The documents also include some plans for adjusting work to address the current challenges.

For instance, to make advisory periods more meaningful, the school will change the schedule so they are only held twice a week. The school also will provide more training to teachers so they can plan those periods.

To improve the rollout of the competency-based model, leaders plan to increase the amount of training for teachers, among other strategies.

“(Professional Development) sessions will involve creating competencies for each standard, as well as coming to a building-wide consensus of what competency looks like based on the demands of each standard,” the document states.

The district cites having more ninth grade students on track for graduation as evidence that tweaks will make a difference. The recommendation cites some improvement on decreasing the dropout rate and increasing the graduation rate this year.

But results from schools that increase school-level autonomy have not been promising in the past. A report last year from the state found that only three of 18 failing schools across the state granted “innovation status” at the time had made enough progress to make it off of the list of schools facing action for low-performance. The findings called into question whether the autonomy granted made a difference for schools with such low performance.

But in the state recommendation for Central, other possible actions for the school — including closing it or converting it to a charter — were not deemed possible for now.

“Given the size of Aurora Central and the community support behind the current reforms being enacted, the Department recommends full implementation of the innovation zone for at least two years before considering conversion to a charter school,” the recommendation states. “CDE does not recommend school closure, first and foremost, because there is not capacity at other district high schools to serve the 2,172 Aurora Central students.”

The plan also proposes a management role for Mass Insight, a Boston-based company that already has been working under contract with some Aurora schools and helped gather input to draft the original innovation plans. Browne said at the board meeting this month that details of what the company would do are not completely worked out yet.

Documents state the company now would “focus on project management and performance management for innovation implementation.”

“Mass Insight’s responsibility is to support implementation of the innovation plan for Central so it is not directing action at all it’s just supporting the innovation plan,” Browne said. “What that looks like next year is still to be determined.”