Big Shift

State board increasingly siding with charter schools on appeals, prompting Colorado districts to rethink their role

Ana Gramajo, left, is the co-director of HOPE Online Action Academy in Aurora. Here she works with a student on reading. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

When charter schools in Colorado feel like local school districts aren’t giving them a fair chance to open, they can ask the state Board of Education — a seven-member board of elected officials — to serve as referee.

Charter schools don’t file an appeal every time they are turned down. But when they do, the state board is tasked with making sure local school boards aren’t making a decision that could hurt the community’s chance of having school choices.

In the past three years, the Colorado State Board of Education has sided with charter schools in all but two appeals on proposed openings or other issues, according to records reviewed by Chalkbeat.

That’s a marked decrease from data going back ten years, and it has prompted local school boards to reconsider their role as authorizers of charter schools. Some local district officials worry that the trend could challenge their ability to set high expectations for all schools.

“I don’t personally feel as a Jeffco board member I’ve been given the authority that I should have to effectively evaluate a charter school for Jeffco based on how it fits in our local community,” said Ron Mitchell, president of the Jefferson County school board. “Most of the districts in the metro area have experienced this.”

The Jeffco school board, whose five board members all are new to the process, brought in a lawyer in September and voiced disappointment when she told them their concerns about the strength of a budget or curriculum may not hold up as valid reasons to deny a charter school.

During that meeting, board members also voiced a concern that if a school doesn’t enroll enough kids it may not be financially viable — or that a charter could take so many students from a district-run school that the smaller school would be forced to close.

“I’m worried about the things that aren’t necessarily bright lines but we still don’t find satisfying, and what you just said a moment ago was if it’s not detrimental to the district then we should approve it,” Mitchell told the attorney at the meeting. “That seems to me a pretty horrible standard. Merely not being a hinderance is not much of a threshold.”

The attorney, Kristin Edgar, responded by reiterating that generally speaking, when a group of people has met the requirements in proposing a school, “we have an obligation to give this group of people a chance.”

Jeffco’s board denied a charter school anyway, citing the financial viability of the school if not enough students enroll, and other factors.

The state board last month asked Jeffco to reconsider, but on Thursday the board failed to approve an agreement with the school again. If it goes to a second appeal and the state board finds the local decision was “contrary to the best interests” of the students, the district or the community, the state board can order the school be allowed to open.

“To not allow opportunity — to guarantee against failure — is to guarantee that people will not have options,” Republican state board member Steve Durham said at that appeals hearing. “This is not a risk-free world.”

The board began siding more often with charter schools notably after changes in board leadership two years ago that included the appointment of Durham, who immediately emerged as a vocal and influential presence. However, charter appeal votes don’t always fall along party lines and the votes can vary depending on the circumstances of each case.

Aurora Public Schools, a district that has gradually warmed to charter schools and is seeing an increase in applications, last summer approved several charter schools. One school that didn’t open on time withdrew an application, and the district created a new process to allow it to join instead with another charter that was approved to do the same work in the same neighborhood.

The Aurora district last year also decided to close local branches of HOPE Online Learning Academy, a multi-district charter school, that was not meeting performance expectations. The state board questioned the decision and overturned it.

“I think that the belief right now is that districts are by default going to lose charter school appeals except in extreme circumstances. Anybody in the field would tell you that,” said Rico Munn, superintendent of Aurora schools. “If that’s the case, that really hampers how much of an honest job you can do with a charter proposer and really challenging what they do.”

Charter school advocates say that even though charter schools have been in Colorado more than 20 years, an appeals process is still necessary. They say it allows recourse for schools that may not get a fair shot at opening in districts that are apprehensive about all charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently operated.

Not all charter school appeals prevail with the state board. In 2015, the board denied an appeal of an Aurora Public Schools rejection of a charter school that proposed personalized learning — or tailoring instruction to each student’s needs — and a strong emphasis on teacher leadership.

The district cited concerns that the application didn’t outline how it would comply with state accountability laws to test students and set achievement goals. The state board majority agreed. Still, the head of the proposed charter school, teacher Roya Brown, said she valued having the opportunity to appeal.

“In our case it didn’t matter what we did,” Brown said. “It wasn’t enough.”

Dan Schaller, director of governmental affairs for the Colorado League of Charter Schools, a membership and advocacy organization, said one or two years of charter appeal victories should be viewed in the context of a longer period.

“I do feel like it provides really important checks and balances,” Schaller said. “I would point back to the track record of how it has played out over time. Over the balance of time it has been very balanced.”

The most recent data from records of state board meetings and hearings show that between 2014 and 2016, the state held 12 appeal hearings and voted to uphold the local decisions against charter schools twice. Between 2011 and 2013, the board heard the same number of appeals but upheld local decisions eight times.

At times, the state board is united. The board’s July decision to turn back Aurora’s attempts to kick HOPE schools out of the district boundaries was unanimous, with board members saying parental choice trumped the school’s poor performance on state tests.

Jane Goff, a Democratic state board member from Arvada, said she has never changed how she applies the standard of review for appeal hearings. She said trends in appeals change in part because boards of education change and “people come in with varying points of view.”

“I do consider myself to have a record of balance on these decisions. For the most part, I tend to support the districts,” Goff said. “I believe that in almost every case the district has done a thorough job of vetting the applications.”

But, she added, the recent trend of siding with charters could be because more groups from outside of school districts are seeking to open charter schools, leading to skepticism on school boards.

Durham, the former board chairman, did not respond to Chalkbeat questions.

It’s unclear whether the board’s stance on charter appeals will shift again in light of November’s election. Democrats now control the board for the first time in nearly five decades, and Boulder Democrat Angelika Schroeder has replaced Durham as chair.

In Aurora, the process for reviewing and authorizing charters is changing under Lamont Browne, a former principal and charter school leader who is new to his role as the district’s executive director of autonomous schools. District officials said they are still trying to set a rigorous process with high standards.

“We feel like we have authority, absolutely,” Browne said. “The state board’s wishes or past decisions or practice does not impact our process. If the state board decided to uphold or to overturn, that is outside of our hands.”

Officials said the charter consideration process in Aurora may often include discussions or conversations with charter applicants about details like location, budget or curriculum, even if those are details staff won’t use to recommend an approval or denial of a charter.

Kate Mullins, executive director of Vega Collegiate Academy, the charter school that was modified to join another in Aurora to open this fall, said those discussions are important.

“Communication is the number one most important thing,” Mullins said. “In my brain, you really want to communicate with the district as soon as possible to ask, ‘What do you feel like the district needs?’ to make sure you are proposing a school the district and community wants and needs and deserves.”

Achievement School District

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

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

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.”