Online/Offline

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

A HOPE Online student works during the day at an Aurora learning center. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

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.
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.”

A new responsibility

In first for Aurora, charter school to run center for special education students

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

When Rocky Mountain Prep replaces Fletcher Community School in Aurora, the charter school will become the first in the district to operate a center for students with special needs.

As a district-run school, Fletcher for years has operated a regional program for students with autism. After the district decided last year to phase out the low-performing school and replace it with a charter school, conversations began about the fate of the program.

“From the beginning we’ve been really open and consistently stated that we would be excited to take it on if that’s what the district felt was best,” said James Cryan, CEO of Rocky Mountain Prep. He said serving all students including those with special needs fits into the charter’s mission.

Now, district and charter officials have worked out a transition plan that will give the charter school a year to prepare — including hiring a new director to oversee the special needs programs and research best practices — to take over the center by fall of 2019.

“We recognize the good work that’s been happening at that center program,” Cryan said. “It’s a program that’s serving students really well.”

The program at Fletcher this year served 21 students with autism that come from the surrounding neighborhoods. Aurora Public Schools has 17 autism center classrooms spread across the district at district-operated schools.

Aurora officials last year started exploring how charters can share the responsibility of serving students with special needs, but there was no strategy or process behind the work, said Jennifer Gutierrez, director of student services.

“This is our opportunity to do this,” Gutierrez said. “I anticipate that down the road if we have more charters to come aboard that this might be something we would explore.”

She said having the option of putting a program in a charter school could be especially useful in neighborhoods with crowded schools.

“We continue to have space issues,” Gutierrez said. “If we need a targeted clustered program in a certain neighborhood, it can be really hard to find classroom space.”

Rocky Mountain Prep began phasing in its program at Fletcher in the 2016-17 school year by operating the school’s preschool. In the fall, the charter will take over the kindergarten through second grade classrooms, and by the fall of 2019, the charter will run the entire school.

As Rocky Mountain Prep takes over more grades, the school will need to train teachers so they can help integrate students from the autism center when their individual plan calls for them to be in a general population classrooms some or most of the time.

Officials have yet to decide how much the charter school will lean on district services provided to district-run schools operating special needs programs, including teacher training, coaching and consultants.

The charter is also still looking for funding to hire the director that would oversee special services and research best practices for running the program.

That work will also include figuring out if the model of the center program will change or stay the same. Right now, center programs include classes labeled with a level one through three. In level three classrooms students spend a lot of time in general education classrooms while level one classrooms serve the students that need the most individual attention.

Teachers work together across the levels to help move students, if possible, from one level to the next — or, potentially, back to a general education classroom in their neighborhood school.

What will look different at the center program is that it will have the Rocky Mountain Prep model. That includes the uniforms, having students respond to their classmates with hand signals during group instruction and school-wide cheers or meetings instilling the core values that make up the charter’s model.

“We consider all of our students to be our scholars,” Cryan said. “We integrate all students into our model.”

It won’t be the first time the Denver-based elementary charter school network will be running a program for students with special needs.

In one of its Denver schools, Rocky Mountain Prep began operating a center program for students with multi-intensive severe special needs this year after the district asked them to.

In recent years, Denver Public Schools has asked its charter schools to operate special education centers in return for access to district real estate, part of a “collaboration compact.”

Across the country, research has shown charter schools do not educate a proportionate share of special education students. DPS says that within three years, it expects Denver to be the first city in the country to provide equitable access to charter schools for students with significant disabilities.

Cryan said Rocky Mountain Prep has learned general lessons from running the program in Denver that will help plan ahead for operating the program in Aurora, most importantly he said it’s why he asked for a planning year.

“We’ve also learned that having strong and consistent leadership really has an impact,” Cryan said. “And we really want to take time to learn best practices.”

District staff on Tuesday updated the Aurora school board on the overall transition of the school, including pointing to staff surveys that show school teachers and employees were happy with the changes.

District staff said the district plans to use the experience at Fletcher to create a process for any future school turnarounds involving changing a school’s management.

First expansion

Aurora school board votes to approve DSST charter schools

PHOTO: Andy Cross/Denver Post
Sixth-graders at DSST: College View answer questions during class in 2014.

The school board for Aurora Public Schools on Tuesday voted to approve a charter application that will allow a high-performing charter network from Denver to open four schools in Aurora.

DSST applied to operate two campuses each with a middle and a high school. The first middle school would open in the fall of 2019. The application was written after Aurora’s superintendent invited the network to Aurora, offering to build the charter a new school with bond money approved in November.

Several people spoke during public comment, including students asking for the schools to be approved and teachers raising concerns about whether the charter will serve all students.

Two board members, Eric Nelson and Barbara Yamrick, voted against approving the application. Yamrick had said at a previous board meeting that she respected the school and its performance, but would vote against the application. Nelson said he wanted to postpone the decision to get more data about the outcomes of the charter school’s current students.

State law sets a timeline for voting on charter applications after they are submitted. DSST would have had to agree to postpone the vote Tuesday, but board president Amber Drevon said she was not going to ask for a delay after the work that had already gone into the application.

Board members also clarified that they will vote again in the fall to approve a contract with specific requirements around enrollment and performance.

DSST is known for intentionally seeking to build racially integrated schools, producing high state test scores and getting all of its students accepted into four-year universities. The network runs four of the five top high schools in Denver and has earned national attention, leading to donations from Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey.

DSST currently educates about 5,000 students and is planning to expand within Denver to operate 22 schools by 2024. The Aurora schools would be the network’s first ones outside of Denver.

Bill Kurtz, CEO of the network, said in an interview before Tuesday’s meeting that Aurora’s invitation and the community’s interest in the schools — the charter presented hundreds of letters of support with their application — was a big factor in accepting the invitation.

But, he said, Aurora was also a good fit for DSST because of its proximity to Denver, the area’s need for better schools and the district’s offer of a building.

Initially, Aurora asked the charter network to come up with half of the funding for a new building. DSST offered to help raise funds, but said the district should take on the responsibility.

The resolution the school board approved Tuesday night set a March 30, 2018 deadline for coming up with the money for the first DSST campus — leaving the exact division of fundraising between the district and the charter network vague.

Kurtz said it should be made clear that the district will be responsible for paying for the construction of the building.

“Aurora Public Schools will own the building,” Kurtz said. “Because they own the building, they own the responsibility. We are happy to assist and support that effort but ultimately that is their responsibility.”