Online/Offline

Why Aurora’s superintendent wants to close HOPE Online’s campuses in his district

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

AURORA — Aurora Public Schools, which is undertaking efforts to improve its failing schools, wants a struggling online charter school to stop operating its learning centers in the district’s boundaries.

In an unusual move, Superintendent Rico Munn told the district’s school board in May that it should reject a renewal agreement with HOPE Online Learning Academy. That would effectively shutter the multi-district charter school’s five Aurora locations, where about 400 students come to study on computers and receive instruction.

Munn and other district officials cited HOPE’s dismal student achievement as their rationale for rejecting what would normally be a standard renewal with the school, which has operated in Colorado’s third largest city since 2005.

Most charter schools in Colorado are authorized by a single school district, even those such as HOPE with students throughout the state.

The online school initially was authorized by the rural Vilas School District. A state audit in 2006 found problems with HOPE, including the commingling of state dollars with private school tuition. In 2008, citing growth that required it to find a home in a larger district, HOPE reached an agreement to work under the auspices of the Douglas County School District.

That put a charter school that educates a large number of students living in poverty under a wealthy school district with a history of high academic achievement.

Munn’s recommendation resurfaces longstanding questions about the quality of instruction that online schools like HOPE provide while employing few licensed educators and little oversight compared to most schools.

Online school operators argue they educate students who struggle to succeed at traditional brick-and-mortar schools, and that should be taken into account when considering performance. Some students prefer to work at their own pace, or struggle with socialization.

Anthony Worysz, who attends HOPE Power Academy, said he felt lost at the bigger schools he attended in Aurora and Westminster.

“I couldn’t find my place at school,” Worysz told the Aurora school board at its May 17 meeting. “It seemed like no one cared if I was there or not. It was so easy to disappear.”

But during the past decade, state officials and news outlets have raised questions about how well those students are being served.

Like other schools in Aurora, HOPE’s elementary and middle schools are on the state’s accountability watchlist because its students — most of whom are poor — lag far behind their peers on the state’s standardized tests and other measures such as graduation rates.

HOPE’s high school, which has a special designation to serve the state’s most at-risk students, is not at risk of state sanctions.

Because HOPE is authorized by the Douglas County School District, Munn and his administration have no say on how the school operates — or tries to improve. At the same time, the Aurora school district is not held liable for HOPE’s poor performance on standardized tests, as it is with its own schools.

Nevertheless, Munn encouraged his school board to hold HOPE to the same standards as his district-run schools.

“We fully recognize that we have limited authority,” Munn said. But, “we simply can’t continue down a path of significantly low student achievement,” he said.

Heather O’Mara, the charter school’s CEO, told Aurora school board members that her team, like theirs, has taken steps to improve. New data shows that students who stick with HOPE for more than two years show better academic growth than at their previous schools on state and local assessments, she said.

At the board meeting and in a subsequent interview with Chalkbeat, O’Mara said HOPE has added staff at its learning centers, provided employees more training and better aligned curriculum to the state’s standards.

“What’s important is that we have quality teachers, quality curriculum, and we’re working together to make a difference for students,” O’Mara said.

A closer look at HOPE

The way HOPE works makes it one of the most unique charter schools in Colorado.

Ana Gramajo, left, is the co-director of HOPE Online Action Academy in Aurora. Here she works with a student on reading.
Ana Gramajo, left, is the co-director of HOPE Online Action Academy in Aurora. Here she works with a student on reading.

In the state’s eyes, HOPE is three schools — an elementary, middle and a high school. Those schools combined have 29 different campuses, or learning centers, in 11 districts. HOPE learning centers can be found in strip malls, churches and empty schools.

HOPE’s agreements with seven school districts were renewed this year.

Munn is not the first Colorado education official to try and shutter HOPE’s learning centers. In 2011, the Eaton school board attempted to close HOPE’s learning center. That decision was overturned by the State Board of Education.

Nearly 3,000 students were enrolled at HOPE learning centers this school year.

The state school accountability system doesn’t rate online learning centers, making it impossible for parents and taxpayers to know how learning centers compare. But O’Mara said HOPE’s staff does track those results.

“We treat each learning center like a separate classroom,” she said, adding that when results improve at one learning center, staff tries to share what works across all learning centers.

In some instances, HOPE has closed low-performing centers. At one point, HOPE had as many as 79 centers across the state.

Unlike other online schools that students connect to at home, HOPE students are required to attend class every day at a learning center. In the past, students would spend most of their time on computers working through lessons in English, math, science and social studies. But in recent years, HOPE has pushed for more offline instruction in an effort to boost achievement.

At HOPE Action Academy in Aurora, elementary school students spend about half their day on a computer. When they reach middle school, that increases to about 60 percent. High schoolers spend more than two-thirds of their day on a computer.

Learning centers are run by “community leaders,” not licensed principals. Most classrooms are led by “mentors,” most of whom aren’t licensed to teach. However, each learning center is staffed by at least one licensed teacher and special education teacher. HOPE pays Douglas County schools $1.4 million for its special education teachers.

More online schools still flunking

In 2011, an investigation by Rocky Mountain PBS I-News and Chalkbeat (then EdNews Colorado) found online schools across the state were receiving millions in tax dollars for students who dropped out at a much higher rate, students who completed most of their coursework online fared worse on state exams, and the state had little authority to intervene.

Little has changed since then.

A Chalkbeat review of the Colorado’s school accountability watchlist found that a quarter of all online schools — including HOPE — were flagged for poor student performance in 2014, the last year schools were rated. Only about 7 percent of the state’s brick-and-mortar schools made the list.

And recent research by the America’s Promise Alliance, a coalition of education advocacy groups, found the nationwide graduation rate for online schools is just 40 percent, the New York Times reported.

“I don’t think online schools should go away,” said Nora Flood, executive director of the Colorado League of Charter Schools. “But I think we really need to know more about them. And we really need to make sure they are quality options for kids and families.”

What’s next

The Aurora school board will take up the HOPE issue at its June 7 meeting. If the board takes Munn’s recommendation, HOPE has signaled it will appeal that decision to the State Board of Education, which has a history of being friendly to charter schools.

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn.
PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn.

However, some state board members have indicated they will take a tougher stance on chronically failing schools in 2017, when the state’s accountability timeline runs out. Schools that haven’t turned things by then face state sanctions that could include closure or takeover by a different management organization.

HOPE’s agreement with the Douglas County School District is also up for renewal in 2018. Tom McMillen, Douglas County’s director of choice programming, said the the district has worked with HOPE to improve student academic performance.

Among the steps he spotlighted: providing more training for teachers, mentors and learning center leaders; pushing for more mentors to become licensed teachers, and working with the charter school to increase the student to teacher ratio.

“Depending on the improvements, that’s where we’d begin discussion about modification to their contracts or renewal,” McMillen said.

Last spring, a panel of educators commissioned by the state to review HOPE and other schools on the state’s watchlist suggested the school — or some functions such as hiring and training — be turned over to new management.

The panel, which credited the school’s central administration team as being strong, also suggested the school drop its “online” label to better reflect its use of offline instruction and consider an authorizer other than Douglas County that could provide more training and oversight.

Additionally, the panel concluded that HOPE should find new board members to better govern the online school.

“Based on interviews with the Board, they were unaware of the school’s current performance concerns and did not set clear, high expectations for performance against which they held leaders accountable,” according to state documents.

O’Mara said she and her team are prepared to prove their worth.

“It’s our responsibility to show why HOPE is in the best interest of students, family and the community,” she said. “It’s our responsibility to show the growth students are making.”

On the right track

Aurora state test results mostly moving in positive direction

Students at Aurora's Boston K-8 school in spring 2015. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post).

Aurora Public Schools officials are optimistic after seeing their latest state test scores, a major factor in whether the district will pull itself off the state’s watchlist for chronic poor performance.

The number of eighth graders that met or exceeded expectations on English tests increased by more than the state average. The district’s lowest performing school, Aurora Central High School, nearly doubled the number of ninth graders meeting or exceeding expectations on their English tests.

Another Aurora school, William Smith High School, had the state’s fourth highest median growth percentile for English tests. That means that on PARCC English tests, those students showed improvements on average better than 89 percent of Colorado kids who started with a similar test score from the year before.

But the increases of how many Aurora third graders met expectations on English tests weren’t as big as the average increase across the state. The improvements also still leave the district with far fewer students proficient than in many nearby districts or compared to state averages.

“There’s evidence there that there has been some really hard work by our kids and our staff,” Superintendent Rico Munn said. “We’ve hit a mile marker in a marathon. But we fully recognize we have a lot of work left to do.”

Aurora Public Schools is the only Colorado district at risk of facing state action next year if state ratings don’t improve this fall. Those ratings will in part be based on the state test data made public Thursday. Munn said he has a “positive outlook” on what the data could mean for the district’s rating.

Disaggregated test data also seemed promising. While gaps still exist between students who qualify for free or reduced price lunch and those who don’t, the gap has shrunk. English language learners are performing better than native English speakers in both math and English language arts tests.

The trends are similar in other metro area districts, but Munn said there are some changes that might be responsible for the better performance by students who are learning English.

The district made changes in how schools teach English by including English language development throughout the school day rather than just during a specific time of day.

The district’s overall median growth scores also increased and reached above 50 for English language arts. For students to make at least a year’s growth, they must have a score of at least 50, something especially important in districts like Aurora where a lot of students are behind grade level.

Aurora’s five innovation zone schools, the biggest reform superintendent Munn has rolled out, saw mixed results. Last fall, the five schools each started working on plans the district and state approved giving them flexibility from some district or union rules and state laws.

Find your school’s scores
Search for your school’s growth scores in Chalkbeat’s database here, or search for your school’s test results and participation rates in Chalkbeat’s database here.

For instance, Boston K-8 school, one that was celebrated last year, had big increases in the number of sixth graders meeting standards on English tests, but big decreases in the number of eighth graders that do.

Central High School, another school in the zone, and one that is now on a state action plan because of low performance, had a median growth percentile of 57 for English tests, meaning the school’s students on average had improvements better than 57 percent of Colorado students when comparing them to students who had similar test scores the prior year. But the math growth score was 46 — below the 50 that is considered a year’s worth of growth.

Central also had a decrease when compared to last year in the number of students that did well on a math test taken by the largest number of students, or more than 400.

Munn pointed out that schools had only started working on the changes in their innovation plans months before students took these tests and said district officials aren’t yet attributing the results, negative or positive, to the reforms.

Some of the data for the individual schools was not released publicly as part of the state’s efforts to protect student privacy when the number of students in a certain category is low.

Districts do have access to more data than the public, and Munn said educators in Aurora will continue to analyze it, school by school, to figure out what’s working and what needs to change.

David Roll, principal of Aurora’s William Smith High School, said the test results for his school were somewhat unexpected.

“I was hoping we would continue to show growth, but I was anticipating an implementation dip,” Roll said. “What this is beginning to demonstrate to us in strong terms is that this is a powerful way for students to learn. And by the way it also shows up on their testing.”

The school, an expeditionary learning school which relies on projects and field work, made a change last year to eliminate typical subject courses and instead have students enroll in two projects per semester which each incorporate learning standards from the typical subjects such as history, English and math.

“We always envisioned we were working toward that,” Roll said.

Here’s how William Smith High School ranked on growth scores for English tests:

pinpoint

New online map puts Aurora school information in one place

A student works at Tollgate Elementary School in Aurora. (Photo by Nic Garcia, Chalkbeat)

Aurora Public Schools has launched a new online map that for the first time creates a central location for parents to find information about a school’s performance, demographics and more — part of an effort to make school choice easier.

“It was to let them know what programs are available at our schools and to allow schools to be able to tell their story better,” said Corey Christiansen, a spokesman for the district.

The map, based on a similar one the district introduced last year to share information about proposed bond projects, did not represent an additional cost to the district because it was created by the communications staff.

When clicking on each school’s icon, a window pops up with information about student demographics, teacher experience, programs offered at the school and a link to a video of the school’s principal talking about the school. Principal videos for four schools are up so far. (There are 64 schools in the district).

The tab that gives viewers information about school performance uses uniform-colored bar charts in soft purple to show the school’s quality rating as given by the state.

But unless parents are familiar with the state’s terminology for different school ratings, what those ratings mean won’t be clear to site visitors. For schools that earn the two lowest performing ratings, a link is provided to the school’s improvement plans.

Screen shot of Aurora’s new interactive map.

“We continue to receive feedback on the interactive map and will make improvements as we can,” Christiansen said. “Linking to (Colorado Department of Education) resources is something we will consider.”

A+ Colorado, a nonprofit advocacy group, has criticized the district in the past for not making school performance data readily available to families. The organization had suggested the district develop its own school rating system to share more data with Aurora families.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Van Schoales, executive director of A+ Colorado. “Having gone from zero to this is helpful, but it doesn’t really provide information that most families would understand about, for instance, how many kids know how to read at grade level. They need to provide a lot more information.”

The state ratings will be updated when the new ones are finalized later this fall, but Christiansen said he isn’t sure how fast district staff will be able to update any of the information when new data sets are out.

Superintendent Rico Munn highlighted the webpage at a community meeting last week when asked about how the district shares information with parents, and said it represents “a real opportunity for families.”