a reason for hope

Failing online charter school leaders pledge greater focus on student test scores, better teachers

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

Leaders of HOPE Online charter school, facing state intervention for poor performance, pledged Thursday to improve teacher quality, hold themselves more accountable and renew their focus on boosting student test scores.

“Our focus must be on academic growth, not enrollment growth,” Heather O’Mara, HOPE’s CEO, told the State Board of Education.

The state board voted 6-1 to give preliminary approval to an improvement plan that was written jointly by the charter school and Department of Education officials. Democrat Rebecca McClellan, the board’s newest member, strongly objected and cast the sole “no” vote.

The board will take a final vote on the plan next month. Thursday’s meeting was part of a series the state board is hosting with schools and districts that have failed to improve learning during the last seven years. HOPE is the state’s only charter school facing state intervention this year.

Combined, HOPE’s elementary, middle and high schools educate 2,363 kids. Nearly all are poor, black or Latino.

As part of its improvement plan, which only applies to the elementary and middle schools, the charter will hire a former state education department official to help hire and better train teachers. It will also appoint two new board members.

At the state’s request, the new members should have background in the state’s school accountability system and in working with low-income students who often move between schools.

McClellan, a Centennial Democrat, repeatedly raised concerns that the charter school was not accountable to taxpayers.

“I want to know that I can look taxpayers and parents in the eye and say I took full responsibility for a good decision here,” she said.

Unlike a voter-elected district school board, HOPE’s board select its own members. When there is a vacancy, the board recruits a new member. A new member is appointed if a majority of the existing members approve.

O’Mara said the charter was reviewing its bylaws and was prepared to make changes including establishing term limits for board members.

A representative from the Douglas County School District, which authorizes HOPE, said his board will ultimately be accountable for HOPE’s success or failure.

“If you follow the trail of crumbs, it leads to the Douglas County School Board,” said Steve Cook, Douglas County’s deputy superintendent. “It would have the responsibility of whether that charter will be renewed.”

HOPE’s contract with Douglas County schools ends June 2018.

Cook said the school board, one of the most charter school-friendly in the state, will hold HOPE accountable for boosting student achievement. The district has said it’s prepared to shut down the school if it does not see improvement.

McClellan also raised concern that HOPE was allowed to choose their consultant to help boost teacher training. But every school or district in a similar situation is able to choose their own consultant.

Republican Steve Durham called McClellan’s concerns “selective outrage.” He pointed out that McClellan didn’t raise the same concern with Aurora Central, which also selected its own consultant.

Because HOPE is a charter, the state’s board had fewer options to intervene than it would have with a district-run school. The only other option was to close the school.

State officials said they choose not to close the school because HOPE has made significant changes during the last two years that produced some better test results in 2016.

That year, only 12 percent of third graders were reading at grade level, and only 8 percent of seventh graders met the state’s expectations on its math test.

on to the work

State Board signs off on Adams 14, Adams City High School improvement plans

PHOTO: Denver Post file photo
Music teacher, Kristin Lewis, works with her 5th grade students in 2011 at Monaco Elementary School in the Adams 14 district.

The Colorado State Board of Education on Thursday quickly and unanimously approved a revised improvement plan for the Adams 14 School District.

“I am hopeful and optimistic,” said board member Jane Goff, who represents the area that includes the Commerce City-based district. “I am very firm and forthright in my confidence that this is a good plan, that you have taken all the necessary steps to interact well in new and different ways with the community.”

Goff noted the role students have played in shaping the discussion.

Students from Adams City High School walked out of school earlier this year demanding to speak with the district administration, asking for a voice in their school’s future and pleading for stable leadership.

The district’s approved plan calls for an Arizona-based nonprofit group, Beyond Textbooks, to help improve teaching at three schools and make recommendations about possible management changes.

The final order for the 8,000-student district allows the state to take further action if the state’s 2018 performance reviews don’t show improvement.

The order also states that if Adams City High School earns a priority improvement or turnaround rating in 2018 — the two lowest ratings on the state’s evaluations — the commissioner “may assign the state review panel to critically evaluate the school’s performance, revisit its recommendations and report back to the state board.” The high school is under its own improvement plan because of poor performance, along with being part of the district’s plan.

The state board has given most other schools and districts on improvement plans until 2019 to show improvement, and set different ratings to trigger further action in the different orders they’ve approved.

Westminster Public Schools must earn a rating higher than the two lowest ones by 2019. Aurora Central High School must show improvement in the 2019 evaluations, but it will only face further action if it earns the lowest rating of turnaround.


Westminster’s plan to improve schools gets narrow board approval

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students work on an English assignment at M. Scott Carpenter Middle School in Westminster.

A plan to improve the struggling Westminster Public Schools was narrowly approved Thursday by the State Board of Education.

The Democrat-controlled board voted along party lines to approve the plan, with the Democrats voting in favor and the Republicans voting against.

The 4-3 vote followed months of negotiations and appeals between the 10,000-student district and the state.

Westminster is the first metro-area district in Colorado to face state intervention after more than five years of low performance on state English and math tests. It is the only district in the state, and one of a few in the country, that has tried to roll out competency-based education district-wide. Instead of traditional grade levels, the district moves students through instruction when they prove they’ve learned a concept.

As part of the improvement plan, the district has hired consultant AdvancEd to help diagnose problems interfering with the rollout of its teaching model and other achievement problems at each of the district’s underperforming schools.

The district previously hired the company to review its school improvement efforts. AdvancEd granted the district a five-year accreditation under their standards. The group also accredits Valor Christian High School, schools in the Cherry Creek School District and schools under the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Denver.

Under its plan, Westminster will also work with Denver-based Marzano Research to train and better prepare teachers to use the competency-based model. Marzano will open a new lab school in the district in the 2018-19 school year. Called Marzano Academy, it will be run based on the company’s research.

Last week members of the state board pushed back on Westminster’s plan, saying it lacked clarity and didn’t make clear the roles the two companies would play.

Even though the district added new details to its plan, some state board members still balked.

“Will this program work?” Republican Steve Durham asked. “I hope so. But I’m not sure it’s the kind of change that can ensure that.”

Earlier in the meeting Durham attempted to strip the district of its accreditation, a seal of approval from the state. But only one other board member, Republican Joyce Rankin, supported his motion.

State board members have increasingly voiced concern about how much authority external partners such as AdvancEd and Marzano should have in low-performing schools. A majority of plans have mirrored Westminster’s. Other options include closing schools or turning them over to charter operators.

Westminster Superintendent Pam Swanson told the board’s Republican members that she rejected their premise that the district hasn’t been proactive in improving.

“We’re really pleased the board upheld Westminster’s plan to move forward,” Swanson said after the meeting. “We believe we’re doing great work. We believe we’ve had a great trajectory.”