Overworked and underpaid at COVA?

Click here to listen to the KUNC public radio report on Grace Hood’s COVA investigation.

Enrollment for kids of all ages is booming at Colorado’s 22 full-time multi-district online schools. This year, about $30 million in taxpayer money is expected to go to the largest, Colorado Virtual Academy. The school is free and promotes a more individualized approach to coursework and virtual interaction with Colorado teachers.

But with an estimated 77 cents of every taxpayer dollar the school receives going to its for-profit management company, some former teachers say they were unable live up to the school’s promises. The news comes as Colorado legislators are preparing to introduce a bill that would increase accountability for the quickly expanding online programs.

Student Overload?

Online schooling is an attractive option for parents and students because schedules are flexible and kids can work from home. It’s those same qualities that attracted Casey Longo to Colorado Virtual Academy. The middle school English teacher was there for five years until the spring of 2011 when her contract wasn’t renewed. She says she felt overwhelmed by crushing workloads the first semester of many school years, which made it nearly impossible to give individualized attention to kids having problems.

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“What I really need to do is get them on the phone, open my computer, open their computer and walk them through it,” she says. “That would take an hour plus. You can’t do that with 250 students. You can’t.”

A five-month investigation by KUNC shows Longo wasn’t alone. Records confirm workloads for middle school English teachers as high as 240 students during the first semester of the 2010-2011 school year and equally large numbers for some high school instructors. Other former teachers speaking off the record reported similar challenges.

That’s despite support from advisors and counselors, who worked with teachers.

Colorado Virtual Academy Board Member Randy DeHoff calls the data misleading because it represents the beginning of the year before school officials have had a chance to respond to changes in student enrollment.

“I don’t think you can really draw any conclusions that mean anything from just looking at that one number,” says DeHoff, who served on the Colorado Board of Education for 12 years.

Records show that Colorado Virtual Academy added two high school English teachers second semester. But that happened after student counts had dropped by more than 300.

“We’re not getting a consistent message from the teachers that they’re overwhelmed,” he says.

K12 Inc.

According to Longo and others, the heart of the problem stems from who manages the school.

Colorado Virtual Academy — which is taxpayer funded — is run by the education management organization (EMO), Virginia-based K12 Inc. It’s a publicly traded, for-profit company that manages 29 virtual public schools across the country. It oversees everything from marketing to teacher staffing at the schools. Several Colorado school districts also contract with K12 Inc. for online curriculum. Last May, Insight School of Colorado came under K12 Inc. management after the company purchased Insight’s parent company, Kaplan, Inc.

Mary Gifford, regional vice president of K12 Inc., says that she and other Colorado Virtual Academy administrators continually monitor enrollments and withdrawals to ensure proper staffing.

“The goal has always been to make sure that kids are ready to learn and teachers are ready to teach on day one,” she says.

However, these questions about staffing aren’t unique to Colorado. Complaints over teacher turnover and pay have contributed to a unionization battle in Pennsylvania at Agora Cyber Charter School. And K12 Inc.’s own shareholders have filed suit, alleging it provided misleading information about student-to-teacher ratios and other practices. The complaint references a New York Times exposé published last December. K12 Inc. has vigorously disputed those claims.

But former teacher Casey Longo questions the bottom line.

“If a teacher has 300 students instead of 150, it’s one less teacher that they have to pay,” she says. “It’s an extra $30,000 that goes into the pocket of K12, which is a corporation.”

According to an open records request, nearly 75 percent of Colorado Virtual Academy teachers make less than $35,000. And only four are at or above the state average of $49,000. These amounts do not include bonuses or merit pay. KUNC was denied access to the salaries of school administrators. That’s because administrators are employees of K12 Inc., and the school said the records were not in their possession.

A $1.3 Million Question

During the course of this investigation, KUNC came across an apparent discrepancy in the school’s audited financial records. Last school year when Longo and others complained about workloads, Colorado Virtual Academy reported spending an extra $1.3 million dollars on instructional expenses (pg. 19 – PDF) related to “increased teaching and support staff to support higher student attendance and achievement.” The note explains that instructional expenses include “activities dealing directly with the interactions between teaching staff and students.”

Screenshot from COVA website.

Officials responded to a records request and numerous emails, but never directly answered KUNC’s questions about specific increases in “staff”. Colorado Virtual Academy Head of School Heidi Heineke-Magri spoke with KUNC via telephone about the expenses, but declined to speak on the record.

According to previous correspondence, the extra money was connected to unfunded students who came in after a statewide count that had already determined public funding. In the past, Heineke-Magri explained in an email that Colorado Virtual Academy has outsourced some teaching for these students to “licensed contractors” to not impact workloads for teachers like Casey Longo.

But if taxpayer money was used for something as innocuous as unfunded students, why was the school so reluctant to provide details?

The Road Ahead

Questions like these come at a critical juncture for the more than 10-year-old Colorado Virtual Academy, which is seeking state renewal for its charter status this fall. Its state academic rating is “priority improvement,” which is the third lowest out of four rankings.

In 2011 the school’s graduation rate was 22 percent [Excel spreadsheet], up from 12 percent the year before. (Read COVA’s statement on its graduation rate here.)

“We know the most important component of a quality education whether it’s face-to-face brick-and-mortar traditional school or online school is the quality of the teacher,” says Susan Patrick, president and CEO of the advocacy organization International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL).

When it comes to gauging teacher staffing, Patrick explains that access to a high-quality teacher is more important than specific ratios. That’s because she says instructional models at online schools are so different. In addition to teachers, the COVA model relies on parents to serve as learning coaches for students.

“Even if you have different staffing models, it should be about the student learning,” she says.

K12 Inc. has been working to improve student learning at Colorado Virtual Academy by spending more than $1 million of its own money on initiatives. This includes changing their middle school model, hiring eight additional advisors — who may not have teaching credentials — to work alongside middle school instructors.

Since the state leaves operational decisions up to individual charter schools, it’s ultimately up to Colorado Virtual Academy board members like Randy DeHoff to determine if the taxpayer money is being used in the best interest of students.

“We look at the money that is going to K12 — not just when we approve the budget — but at every board meeting. Here’s what’s going out, here’s what we’re getting for it,” he says. “We’re constantly asking are we getting our money’s worth?”

Colorado Virtual Academy received nearly $30 million in state funding last year. $22.7 million went to its management company K12 Inc. Their contract agreement ends in 2018.

KUNC reporter Grace Hood can be reached at

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.