Who Is In Charge

Shaffer plans online ed bills in 2012

Colorado’s top senator says he’ll introduce legislation to “rein in” online schools after his request for an online education audit was rejected Tuesday on a party-line vote by the Legislative Audit Committee.

Colorado Capitol“I am very disappointed Republicans chose to make this into a partisan issue, instead of simply doing the right thing,” said Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont.

“Despite overwhelming evidence of widespread fraud and abuse by online schools, they blocked an audit that would have saved Colorado taxpayers millions of dollars,” Shaffer said after the vote. “I will bring forward legislation during the 2012 session to reign in these abuses and restore accountability to the system.”

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But Republican lawmakers said Shaffer’s request was political and they proposed an alternative – an audit focused on all K-12 schools, rather than narrowly tailored to online programs. That idea was rejected by Democrats.

“Let’s look at the big picture of this and truly audit something that will be useful instead of something that will be only used as a political wedge on one form of education,” said Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley.

“An attack on parental choice is what we’re really looking at here,” Renfroe said, “as opposed to trying to solve the problem of our failure of our education system at some levels.”

Auditor proposes report by summer answering four key questions

Shaffer requested an emergency audit of full-time K-12 online schools on Sept. 26, citing concerns about poor performance, high dropout rates and lack of oversight.

Members of the Legislative Audit Committee agreed on a 5-3 vote – with Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, joining four Democrats – to authorize State Auditor Dianne Ray to study the feasibility of an audit and report back Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Shaffer renewed his appeal for an audit on Oct. 18, citing an array of media reports highlighting concerns about online programs, including a three-part series by Education News Colorado and the Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network.

At Tuesday’s audit committee meeting, deputy state auditor Monica Bowers presented a three-page response that proposed an audit addressing four questions:

  • How has the Colorado Department of Education utilized student performance data, school performance measures and the online school certification process to hold online schools accountable for meeting state student performance standards?
  • What happens to students who drop out of online and brick-and-mortar schools and to state funding associated with these students?
  • What role for “for profit” companies play in the online program and how do CSAP scores and graduation rates for students attending online schools run by “for profit” companies compare with students attending other online schools?
  • Does the CDE’s pupil count and per-pupil revenue funding structure effectively support the cost of educating students online?

Bowers said the audit could be released next summer, though Shaffer had asked for its completion in time to assist state lawmakers during the 2012 General Assembly.

Rep. Cindy Acree, R-Aurora, immediately questioned the scope of the audit, asking why all K-12 schools weren’t included.

“I can tell you I think there is tremendous problems right now in all of our public schools, regardless of whether they’re online or not,” she said. “So I’m concerned at why we need to do this audit.”

Republicans argue to expand audit to include all K-12 schools

Ray estimated a broader audit would take significantly longer.

“We wouldn’t be looking at having this ready in the summer if we’re taking on all K-12,” she said. “I’m thinking a couple of years.”

“We wouldn’t be looking at having this ready in the summer if we’re taking on all K-12. I’m thinking a couple of years.”
— State Auditor Dianne Ray

Rep. Deb Gardner, D-Boulder, said she had heard concerns from school district officials in her area about online students transferring back to brick-and-mortar schools after the Oct. 1 pupil count date, meaning their state funding did not follow them.

But it was mostly anecdotes, she said, and she wanted hard data.

“That would be one of the hopes I would see, that we would turn anecdotal information into real information,” Gardner said.

Bowers said auditors hoped to track students going both ways – from online to brick-and-mortar and from brick-and-mortar to online.

Ultimately, though, the four committee Republicans were unable to convince the four committee Democrats to expand the audit. And Democrats were not able to persuade Republicans to look at online schools only.

Sen. Lois Tochtrop, D-Thornton, repeatedly suggested that Republicans submit requests for the larger audit and asked them to focus on the narrower request in front of them.

“Let’s look at the whole thing now,” Renfroe said. “Why spend the money on two separate audits?”

Shaffer promises to pursue issue via legislation in 2012

Acree proposed amending the audit request to include all K-12 schools, which died on a 4-4 party-line vote. The original motion to conduct the online audit then died along similar partisan lines.

“Whenever an audit like this one dies, it’s important that we ask the question why,” said Rep. Joe Miklosi, D-Denver. “And to me, this is not a political agenda, it’s an effort to make sure that taxpayer dollars are being spent prudently to ensure higher graduation rates.”

Miklosi blamed the partisan split on the belief by some members that Shaffer, who is seeking to oust U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner, was “using it as a political tool. I don’t believe that.”

King, who originally voted to look at the feasibility of an online audit, said he did so partly out of respect for Shaffer’s leadership role and partly because it was presented as an “emergency” request and he wanted time to gather information.

So he visited an online school in his area and talked to students.

“They were at-risk students, they were students that were going to fail if they didn’t have another option and the online option was working for them,” King said. “I think we need to give all of our students options for success. That includes online, that includes home-schooling, that includes brick-and-mortar.”

He also said he believed there was more chance for taxpayer dollars being wasted in all of K-12 rather than online programs serving a tiny portion of students.

“I would venture to say there is some areas that we need to reform in online education,” King said. “But there is a heck of a lot of areas that we need to reform in brick-and-mortar schools.”

Shortly after the vote, Shaffer issued a news release saying he’ll pursue the issue via legislation.

“While today’s vote is disappointing, it’s not entirely unexpected,” he said. “Lobbyists representing online schools are extremely powerful in the legislature, and that’s why these schools have a sweetheart deal with no accountability or oversight.”

Vote by Legislative Audit Committee on online schools audit

  • Voting for online schools audit – Rep. Deb Gardner, D-Boulder; Sen. Lucia Guzman, D-Denver; Rep. Joe Miklosi, D-Denver; Sen. Lois Tochtrop, D-Thornton
  • Voting against online schools audit – Rep. Cindy Acree, R-Aurora; Rep. Brian DelGrosso, R-Larimer County (filling in for Rep. James Kerr, R-Lakewood); Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction; Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley

How I Lead

This Memphis principal says supporting teachers and parents helped pull her school out of the bottom 10 percent

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Principal Yolanda Dandridge has led Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary for the last two years, and was previously the academic dean.

Here, in a series we call “How I Lead,” we feature principals and assistant principals who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Principal Yolanda Dandridge walks almost 14,000 steps a day — double the national average.

It takes a lot of walking to manage two schools. Dandridge has led Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary for the last two years and was previously the academic dean. She temporarily took over Frayser Achievement Elementary when the schools had to share space this year because of maintenance issues at Georgian Hill’s original building.

“I am constantly on the move,” Dandridge said. “How else can you keep up with elementary students?”

Both schools are part of the Achievement School District, which is charged with turning around the state’s lowest-performing schools but has struggled to accomplish the task.

This year, Georgian Hills not only left the bottom 5 percent but moved out of the bottom 10 percent. In 2016, before Dandridge took charge, Georgian Hills was in the worst 2 percent of schools.

Dandridge was honored by the achievement district for her work.

“She is a real standout among our principals of someone who understands what it takes to turn things around,” said interim achievement district leader Kathleen Airhart.

Dandridge talked to Chalkbeat about how she gets to know her students, her efforts to motivate teachers, and why school buildings are important.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What was your first education job and what sparked your interest in the field?

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Dandridge walks almost 14,000 steps a day — double the national average.

I tell my teachers to always stay focused on the “why” behind their careers. For me, my “why” was the fact that my little brother got all the way through elementary school without learning to read. He wasn’t able to read until the fifth grade. He came from a family of educators, and he still slipped through the cracks. If that could happen to him, it could happen to so many kids.

I started teaching in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, and I taught in that state for more than a decade. I came to Memphis as a teacher, I was asked later to consider taking on the principal role at Georgian Hills. I said, “You want me to do what?” Now, I’m grateful for all those years in the classroom and as an academic dean to prepare me for this role.

How do you get to know students even though you don’t have your own classroom?

Any chance to get into the classroom, I will. If a substitute teacher doesn’t come, which does happen sometimes, I will teach the students in that classroom for a day. I love getting to know students by helping out in the classroom.

I am also constantly walking the hallways of both schools. That’s how I start the morning — I greet students and their parents by name when they walk into the school. I walk students to their classrooms. I’m constantly monitoring the hallways.

When a new student registers for classes, the first thing the office staff knows to do is call me down so I can meet them.

How do you handle discipline when students get into trouble?

I really prefer to always consider the experiences that a child may have had prior to entering our building.  When you approach discipline with a keen awareness of the types of situations a child might have or experience, it really makes you a better educator.  And you understand that the best thing for us to do is to ensure that students know and understand that we have their best interests in mind. When children connect with you and other teachers in this way, discipline is less challenging.

What is an effort you’ve spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?

I’m very proud of what we’ve done at Georgian Hills and now at Frayser to really focus on our teachers.

Every Wednesday after school, we’ll have a period of professional development. I try to be attentive to what my teachers tell me they want to learn more about. There is a lot of coordination on lesson plans in particular. Teachers work together on their lesson planning, and I also will personally give feedback on a teahers’ lesson plans. My biggest, driving question is “What do my teachers need most?” They don’t need to be spending hours everyday lesson planning when they can collaborate. We can help there.

Tell us about a time that a teacher evaluation didn’t go as expected — for better or for worse?

Evaluating teachers has always provided me with the opportunity to hear and see the creativity and passion that our teachers bring to the classroom.  My thought on evaluations is to take the anxiety out of it and ensure that teachers are comfortable and understand that the overall process is about improving their skills and enhancing the tools in their toolbox.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
This year, Georgian Hills not only left the bottom 5 percent but moved out of the bottom 10 percent of schools in Tennessee.

When I was early in my teaching career in Mississippi, I had a student with a single mom. Her mom was an amazing support system for me and my classroom. She was always wanting to volunteer at the school. But she struggled to provide basic needs for her daughter — she was struggling to get a job. But she was trying so hard. There’s a stigma of parents, especially in low-income communities, not participating or caring about their child’s education. This mom was giving her all, and it changed my view of parental support. The school needed to find ways to also support her.

And so as a principal, I’m always thinking about how I can support my parents and invite them into the school. So that they feel welcome and wanted, and also so they are encouraged in their own role in their child’s education. We hold math and science nights, where parents learn how to do math games or science experiments at home with their kids. We provide them with materials and knowledge so that they can provide enrichment in their own home.

What issue in the education policy realm is having a big impact on your school right now? How are you addressing it?

We, like many schools in Memphis, don’t have the facilities we need for our students. Georgian Hills had to vacate our school building due to an issue with the roof. That created a hard environment for this school year — moving to a new building where we share space, and then me taking on that school as its school leader when the principal left. Honestly, I thought this year could break me as a school leader. But it didn’t, and it didn’t break our school either. We had a culture in place where our teachers felt supported among the chaos of the start of the year. After a year of repairs, we’re planning on moving back to our original building this fall.

But the issue here is that we don’t have the school buildings we need. Schools should be palaces in a community.

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

You have to mobilize people’s efforts to “win.” The first secret to this is to love your people. They are here for a purpose and you have to help them understand the higher purpose that they are here to serve.  You have to have the right people in place, be responsible for developing them, and have the courage to let them go when student’s needs aren’t being met. Finally, transparency rules.

oversight

Aurora school board to consider one-year charter contract for school with conflict of interest

PHOTO: Andrea Chu

Aurora’s school board is set to decide Tuesday whether to renew the charter of a well-rated school that long has served children with special needs — but that also has become caught up in questions over conflicts of interest and opaque finances.

Aurora district administrators, concerned about operations of Vanguard Classical School, are recommending just a one-year charter extension rather than the usual five-year contract.

District staff members told the school board earlier this year that they were unsure about the school’s relationship with Ability Connection Colorado, the nonprofit that started the school and provides services through a $350,000 agreement. Not only does that contract lack specifics, but also the nonprofit’s CEO, Judy Ham, serves as the president of the charter school’s board and has signed agreements between the two organizations on behalf of Vanguard.

“You can see the clear conflict of interest concern that arose for us,” Lamont Browne, the district’s director of autonomous schools, told the school board in February.

The charter school board president disputes the findings of the conflicts of interest, but said the school is going to comply with all of the contract’s conditions anyway.

Vanguard, which first opened in 2007, was created to serve students with special needs in an inclusive model, meaning, as much as possible those students are blended into regular classrooms. Currently, the charter operates two campuses. One, near Lowry, enrolls about 500 K-8 students, and the second, a K-12 campus on the east side of the city, enrolls about 745 students. More than half of the students at each campus qualify for free or reduced price lunches, a measure of poverty.

In reviewing Vanguard, the district found it has a higher percentage of students who perform well on some state tests than the district does. The school also has a good rating from annual state reviews.

But the unclear relationship between the school and its founding nonprofit have raised doubts.

Although the relationship and service agreements the school has with the nonprofit aren’t new, Aurora’s concerns came up during an interview step that was added to the charter renewal process this year. Last time Vanguard went through a review from the district, five years ago, the district’s office of autonomous schools that now oversees charter schools did not exist. Staff describe previous reviews as compliance checklists.

Ham told district reviewers in that new step during the review process, that she never recused herself from board votes involving her employer.

But Ham now says that she misspoke, and meant that she has never recused herself officially because she just doesn’t vote on matters involving Ability Connection Colorado.

“It felt like (it was) a loaded question” Ham said. “But I don’t recuse myself because I don’t ever vote. It’s almost like a foregone conclusion.”

Browne also told the board he was concerned with the lack of detail about the $350,000 service agreement.

“Considering the amount that that contract was for, we were very concerned about the lack of detail regarding those services,” Browne said. He also pointed to school staff’s “lack of clarity with regard to what they were paying for and what they were receiving.”

Ham said the charter school has rewritten and added more detail to the agreements about what Ability Connection Colorado does for the school, which she said includes payroll services, human resources, building management, and risk assessments for students. The school’s west campus also shares a building with the nonprofit.

“We are on-call 24-7,” Ham said. “We wanted to provide everything so that the school could focus on being able to do the most important thing which is educating the children, knowing that inclusive education is hard to do.”

But what the functions of the nonprofit are aren’t clear, according to Aurora administrators.

“The school should not be wondering what services they are or are not receiving from the company,” said Mackenzie Stauffer, Aurora’s charter school coordinator.

Administrators recommend a renewed contract include stipulations such as governance training for the school’s board, meant to address conflicts of interest.

Ben Lindquist, president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, said that there are laws that could apply to give charter school authorizers like Aurora authority over conflict-of-interest issues.

“It should be within the purview of an authorizer to inquire into conflicts of interest if it perceives they are there,” Lindquist said. “But there’s not just one way to remedy that.”

Among the contract’s conditions, the district will also ask that Vanguard’s board be more transparent about recording board votes on significant decisions. Initially, district staff also said they considered asking Vanguard to remove the current board and replace all members, but officials said they ran into some problems with what they were allowed to ask the school to do.

“There’s a very interesting place we are in where we are the authorizer — we don’t run the school and we want to maintain that delineation,” Browne said. “However if we feel like there is something that could be a potential challenge for the school, we feel like it’s our duty to do what we can to suggest or recommend those changes.”