a reason for hope

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

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
A HOPE Online student works during the day at an Aurora learning center.

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.

taking action

Commerce City students march to district building asking for a voice in their struggling school’s future

Students from Adams City High School march toward the district building April 25, 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Students at a struggling high school in Commerce City took to the streets Tuesday to let district officials know they want a new principal and a say in the future of their school.

“We’re tired of not having consistency,” said Maria Castaneda, a 17-year-old senior at Adams City High School. “We’re asking them to hear our voices. Enough is enough.”

Hundreds of students from Adams City High School, joined by a handful of parents and community members, left school at noon to walk a little more than a mile to the district’s administration building.

The district has been searching for a permanent principal for the high school since the beginning of the school year when they promoted the former principal to a district position. The district has tried twice to hire a new principal, even selecting finalists both times. In the latest attempt, the school board decided against voting on the selected finalist meaning the search had to continue for a school leader.

The school — serving about 2,000 students including more than 80 percent who qualify for free or reduced price lunch — is also one of several across the state that are facing state action this spring after more than five years of low performance. The State Board of Education is expected to vote on a plan to turn around the school and the Adams 14 School District as a whole later this spring. Full plans haven’t been made public and several students and parents said they were not informed about what will happen.

“I didn’t know about any of the meetings,” said Socorro Hernandez, the mom of one student at the school. “We’ve just heard the school could close.”

Hernandez said that although she worries that her child isn’t getting a good education at the school, she thinks closing the school would not help.

Most students said what motivated them to walk out was not having a principal this school year. Many students said they have had a different principal every year they’ve been at the school and they worry that many of the teachers or administrators they do trust are leaving. Students also said the instability means work on next year’s schedules is falling behind.

“Who knows the school more than us?” asked Genavee Gonzales, a 17-year-old junior. “I feel like our education isn’t adequate, but it’s not the teachers’ fault. They aren’t getting enough resources or support from the school district.”

Commerce City police officers and security officials from the school escorted the students as they walked along busy Quebec Parkway. Drivers, including some in big trucks, honked and waved at the students as the crowd chanted down the street.

“Whose education?” student leaders shouted. “Our education!”

Almost an hour after arriving at the administration building, Javier Abrego, the Adams 14 School District superintendent, and Timio Archuleta, one of the district’s school board members, came out of the building and answered some of the students’ questions for about half an hour.

Students asked about the future of specific programs that many credited with their success at the school, and asked about funding for arts classes that they felt were in danger.

Abrego told students the school leaders would decide on a lot of those programs, but warned students that the school is in trouble and that attendance and test scores have to improve.

“They can take us over,” Abrego told the students. “Yes, I’m bringing in a new administration and I’m going to tell them these are the things we need to do.”

Another student asked how students we’re supposed to be motivated to go to school if all the adults they form relationships with at the school change each year.

Abrego reiterated that things have to change.

Students of Adams City High School

The district is scheduled May 11 to have a hearing in front of the state board. District officials were initially pursuing a plan to give the school new flexibilities through innovation status, but the district is now going to propose that an outside company take over some portions of the school and district’s work.

The state board may also suggest the school be turned over to a charter operator. However, the state is not allowed to “take over” management of the school or district as Abrego suggested.

Some of the students promised to return Tuesday night for the regularly scheduled school board meeting.

Board member Archuleta encouraged them to continue to provide their opinions in different ways.

“You guys are critically thinking,” Archuleta told the crowd. “That’s what I ask all students to do.”

reasons vs. excuses

Westminster schools loses on appeal seeking higher performance rating

A student at Westminster’s Hodgkins Elementary in 2013.

The state’s quality rating for Westminster Public Schools will not change after an appeal to the Colorado Board of Education Monday.

The board unanimously voted to deny the appeal after minimal discussion mostly criticizing the district for blaming poor performance on minority and disadvantaged students.

“The ‘why’ students are not performing at grade level is an excuse, but what it should do is give us a roadmap to remedy that failure,” said board member Steve Durham. “It’s our job to identify poor performance and further find remedies regardless of the reasons.”

Pam Swanson, Westminster’s superintendent and school board members said the state board members’ comments were ridiculous.

“We have very high expectations,” Swanson said. “Every teacher listening to that comment was disgusted because we know that we have high expectations. We know all of our kids can get there it just takes them longer.”

The district has argued that their annual performance evaluation was not legal because it discriminated against the district’s population of large numbers of English learners, mobile students and those who qualify for free or reduced price lunch.

They also contend the state isn’t making allowances to account for Westminster’s so-called “competency-based” learning model, which does away with grade levels and moves students instead based on when they’ve learned certain education standards. The district believes that by placing students into traditional grade levels based on their age for testing means they aren’t measuring what students are learning.

State education department officials disputed the district’s appeal stating in part that the district has the flexibility to determine student grade levels for testing purposes.

The decision means Westminster now must go through with an accountability hearing where the state board will be required to vote on action to turnaround the district. Proposed plans for that hearing on May 4 have already been prepared.

The meeting was packed by Westminster employees. A crowd of educators from the Westminster district were watching the meeting from outside the boardroom.