The State Board of Education on Thursday blocked Aurora Public Schools’ efforts to kick a struggling online charter school out of the district’s boundaries, saying that parent choice trumped the school’s poor performance on state tests.
In June, the Aurora school board followed the advice of Superintendent Rico Munn and ended its agreement with HOPE Online Learning Academy, blocking the schools from operating this fall.
The reasoning: The multi-district online charter school has consistently failed to meet state benchmarks on standardized tests, and the district saw no proof it was trying to improve.
After HOPE officials appealed, the State Board voted unanimously Thursday to overturn the decision, allowing HOPE to operate its five centers in the district for another three years. APS and HOPE officials must sign an agreement within 30 days.
“The fact that a school like HOPE might have a low performance rating pales in comparison to a parent who has a student that doesn’t want to go to school,” said State Board member Pam Mazanec, a Republican from Larkspur. “We have to give these parents options.”
HOPE Online is one of a few charter schools in Colorado that operates in multiple school districts. While students at other online-based schools may work exclusively from home, HOPE students are required to attend a learning center daily during the school year.
In Aurora, HOPE schools operate in settings ranging from strip malls to churches.
HOPE Online is on the state’s watch list for poor academic performance — as are several APS-run schools. But APS is not held accountable for HOPE’s performance on the state’s rating system because the school is chartered in Douglas County.
If the state’s struggling schools don’t improve by 2017 they will begin facing sanctions in 2017. The State Board will decide those sanctions from a list including closure, putting the schools under new management or some of their operations under new management.
Some state board members said they they believed HOPE, which serves a large population of students from low-income homes and English language learners, deserves more time to improve.
“I think it takes much longer than the five years to get any results, especially with hard-to-serve schools,” said board member Val Flores, a Denver Democrat. “I think the research shows that it could be up to 10 years.”
Board vice chair Angelika Schroeder, a Boulder Democrat, said the centers deserved more time but that the state board would hold the charter accountable when it was time.
“It will still be the responsibility of this board to look at the turnaround schools,” Schroeder said. “But now’s not the right time.”
Superintendent Munn said he respected the board’s decision, adding that he believes their vote means they’ll consider Aurora’s demographics when making decisions about his schools on the state watchlist.
“By a unanimous vote, the State Board has held that our accountability framework should consider the unique circumstances of schools and the communities they serve,” he said in a statement. “We look forward to working with the State Board and the Colorado Department of Education under this new guidance.”
Van Schoales, CEO of A-Plus Colorado, an education reform group doing work in Aurora, said the board’s reversal sets a terrible precedent.
“This has huge ramifications that go beyond Aurora,” he said. “It takes away any bar for school quality in the state of Colorado. According to the state board, what several said was all that mattered was what parents wanted. That is the equivalent of selling a Pinto to a family,” a reference to the 1970s car known for exploding into flames in rear-end collisions.
HOPE administrators told the State Board centers in Aurora that serve mostly low-income students are making strides.
“We’re well above average growth,” said Janet Filbin, HOPE’s director of student achievement, referring to results from an early education literacy test.
Aurora isn’t the first school district to try to evict HOPE. The Eaton school board tried twice to shutter HOPE’s learning center in the district near Greeley. The State Board overturned those decisions.
Munn’s recommendation to shutter HOPE was a part of a school improvement agenda that includes setting free a cluster of five schools from some state and district policies and turning over a low-performing elementary school to a Denver-based charter network.
Correction: This article has been corrected to attribute a quote to Van Schoales, not Rico Munn. Schoales said: “According to the state board, what several said was all that mattered was what parents wanted. That is the equivalent of selling a Pinto to a family,” a reference to the 1970s car known for exploding into flames in rear-end collisions.