hope for hope

HOPE Online gets reprieve from State Board, will continue operating in Aurora

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

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.

Achievement School District

Tennessee’s turnaround district gets new leadership team for a new chapter

PHOTO: TN.gov
Malika Anderson became superintendent of the state-run Achievement School District in 2016 under the leadership of Gov. Bill Haslam.

Tennessee is bringing in some new blood to lead its turnaround district after cutting its workforce almost in half and repositioning the model as an intervention of last resort for the state’s chronically struggling schools.

While Malika Anderson remains as superintendent of the Achievement School District, she’ll have two lieutenants who are new to the ASD’s mostly charter-based turnaround district, as well as two others who have been part of the work in the years since its 2011 launch.

The hires stand in contrast to the original ASD leadership team, which was heavy with education reformers who came from outside of Tennessee or Memphis. And that’s intentional, Anderson said Friday as she announced the new lineup with Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

“It is critical in this phase of the ASD that we are learning from the past … and have leaders who are deeply experienced in Tennessee,” Anderson said.

New to her inner circle as of Aug. 1 are:

Verna Ruffin
Chief academic officer

PHOTO: Submitted
Verna Ruffin

Duties: She’ll assume oversight of the district’s five direct-run schools in Memphis called Achievement Schools, a role previously filled by former executive director Tim Ware, who did not reapply. She’ll also promote collaboration across Achievement Schools and the ASD’s charter schools.

Last job: Superintendent of Jackson-Madison County School District since 2013

Her story: More than 30 years of experience in education as a teacher, principal, director of secondary curriculum, assistant superintendent and superintendent in Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma and Tennessee. At Jackson-Madison County, Ruffin oversaw a diverse student body and implemented a K-3 literacy initiative to promote more rigorous standards.

Farae Wolfe
Executive director of operations

Duties: Human resources, technology and operations

Current job: Program director for the Community Youth Career Development Center in Cleveland, Miss.

Her story: Wolfe has been city manager and human resources director for Cleveland, Miss., where she led a health and wellness initiative that decreased employee absenteeism due to minor illness by 20 percent. Her work experience in education includes overseeing parent and community relations for a Mississippi school district, according to her LinkedIn profile.

Leaders continuing to work with the state turnaround team are:

Lisa Settle
Chief performance officer

PHOTO: Achievement Schools
Lisa Settle

Duties: She’ll oversee federal and state compliance for charter operators and direct-run schools.

Last job: Chief of schools for the direct-run Achievement Schools since June 2015

Her story: Settle was co-founder and principal of Cornerstone Prep-Lester Campus, the first charter school approved by the ASD in Memphis. She also has experience in writing and reviewing curriculum in her work with the state’s recent Standards Review Committee.

Bobby White
Executive director of external affairs

PHOTO: ASD
Bobby White

Duties: He’ll continue his work to bolster the ASD’s community relations, which was fractured by the state’s takeover of neighborhood schools in Memphis when he came aboard in April 2016.

Last job: ASD chief of external affairs

His story: A Memphis native, White previously served as chief of staff and senior adviser for Memphis and Shelby County Mayor A.C. Wharton, as well as a district director for former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr.

A new team for a new era

The restructuring of the ASD and its leadership team comes after state officials decided to merge the ASD with support staff for its Achievement Schools. All 59 employees were invited in May to reapply for 30 jobs, some of which are still being filled.

The downsizing was necessary as the state ran out of money from the federal Race to the Top grant that jump-started the turnaround district in 2011 and has sustained most of its work while growing to 33 schools at its peak.

While the changes signal a new era for the state-run district, both McQueen and Gov. Bill Haslam have said they’re committed to keeping the ASD as Tennessee’s most intensive intervention when local and collaborative turnaround efforts fail, even as the initiative has had a mostly lackluster performance.

“Overall, this new structure will allow the ASD to move forward more efficiently,” McQueen said Friday, “and better positions the ASD to support the school improvement work we have outlined in our ESSA plan …”

In the next phase, school takeovers will not be as abrupt as the first ones that happened in Memphis in 2012, prompting angry protests from teachers and parents and outcry from local officials. Local districts will have three years to use their own turnaround methods before schools can be considered for takeover.

It’s uncertain where the ASD will expand next, but state officials have told Hamilton County leaders that it’s one of several options on the table for five low-performing schools in Chattanooga.

transfer talk

This seemingly small change could make it easier for guidance counselors to send students to transfer schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A guidance counselor at Bronx Academy of Letters

New York City is planning to make it easier to refer students to alternative high schools — part of a broader effort to remove obstacles for students seeking admission to them.

The change will affect the city’s 52 transfer schools, which are designed to catch up students who have dropped out, are over-age or behind in credits. Guidance counselors at traditional high schools will be able to electronically recommend up to three transfer school options for students they believe would be better served in different settings.

That change might seem minor, but it is at the center of a wider debate playing out behind the scenes between the city’s education department — which has indicated that transfer schools are being too picky about who they admit — and transfer schools themselves, some of which worry the new policy could lead to an influx of students who have been pushed out of their high schools.

“There’s a significant fear from transfer schools that these will essentially be over-the-counter placements,” said one Manhattan transfer school principal, referring to a process through which the city directly assigns students who arrive after the admissions process is over, often mid-year. “It doesn’t necessarily make for a better fit for a student.”

Unlike most high schools in New York City, transfer schools admit students outside the centrally managed choice process. Instead, they set their own entrance criteria, often requiring that students interview, and meet minimum credit or age requirements. The schools themselves largely determine which students they admit, and accept them at various points during the year.

Some transfer school principals say this intake process is essential to maintaining each school’s culture, which depends on enrolling students who genuinely want to give school another try after dropping out or falling behind elsewhere.

But city officials have quietly scaled back the type of sorting transfer schools can do, banning them from testing students before they’re admitted, for example, or looking at attendance or suspension records. The transfer school superintendent also now has the power to directly place students if they are rejected from three transfer schools.

Given those changes, some transfer school principals are wary of the latest policy, which will allow guidance counselors at traditional schools to electronically “refer” students for up to three specific transfer schools, and requires transfer schools to track their interactions with those students.

The city says the new system will make it easier to find the right match between schools and students. It will “make the transfer high school admissions process easier and more transparent for students and families, while also ensuring better tracking and accountability,” education department spokesman Will Mantell said in a statement.

He noted the city is still working on implementation and the change won’t will happen before spring 2018. (The education department currently doesn’t have a way to track how many students are being recommended to transfer schools versus how many are actually accepted.)

Mantell could not say whether guidance counselors would need a student’s consent before electronically referring the student to a transfer school, and could not point to any specific policies on when it is appropriate for guidance counselors to refer students — though he noted there would be additional training for them.

Ron Smolkin, principal of Independence High School, a transfer school, says he appreciates the change. He worries about students who have fallen behind being told they “don’t qualify” for a transfer school, he said. “That’s why we exist.”

But other principals say it will make it easier for traditional schools to dump students because they are difficult to serve, regardless of whether they are good candidates for a transfer.

“There’s a greater risk of pushouts,” the Manhattan transfer school principal said.

Transfer school principals also worry about the consequences of accepting students who might be less likely to graduate than their current students — a potential effect of the new policy. The federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires high schools to graduate 67 percent of their students; those that don’t will be targeted for improvement.

Some transfer schools have called that an unfair standard since, by design, they take students who have fallen behind. The state has said transfer schools will not automatically face consequences, such as closure, if they fail to meet that benchmark, but it remains to be seen whether that entirely solves the problem.

One transfer school principal said the city’s desire to better monitor the admissions process makes sense, but won’t prevent schools from gaming the system — and is being implemented without adequate input from principals.

“Our voices haven’t been heard in this process,” the principal said, “and there are a lot of reasons to distrust.”