hope for hope

HOPE Online gets reprieve from State Board, will continue operating in Aurora

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

The State Board of Education on Thursday blocked Aurora Public Schools’ efforts to kick a struggling online charter school out of the district’s boundaries, saying that parent choice trumped the school’s poor performance on state tests.

In June, the Aurora school board followed the advice of Superintendent Rico Munn and ended its agreement with HOPE Online Learning Academy, blocking the schools from operating this fall.

The reasoning: The multi-district online charter school has consistently failed to meet state benchmarks on standardized tests, and the district saw no proof it was trying to improve.

After HOPE officials appealed, the State Board voted unanimously Thursday to overturn the  decision, allowing HOPE to operate its five centers in the district for another three years. APS and HOPE officials must sign an agreement within 30 days.

“The fact that a school like HOPE might have a low performance rating pales in comparison to a parent who has a student that doesn’t want to go to school,” said State Board member Pam Mazanec, a Republican from Larkspur. “We have to give these parents options.”

HOPE Online is one of a few charter schools in Colorado that operates in multiple school districts. While students at other online-based schools may work exclusively from home, HOPE students are required to attend a learning center daily during the school year.

In Aurora, HOPE schools operate in settings ranging from strip malls to churches.

HOPE Online is on the state’s watch list for poor academic performance — as are several APS-run schools. But APS is not held accountable for HOPE’s performance on the state’s rating system because the school is chartered in Douglas County.

If the state’s struggling schools don’t improve by 2017 they will begin facing sanctions in 2017. The State Board will decide those sanctions from a list including closure, putting the schools under new management or some of their operations under new management.

Some state board members said they they believed HOPE, which serves a large population of students from low-income homes and English language learners, deserves more time to improve.

“I think it takes much longer than the five years to get any results, especially with hard-to-serve schools,” said board member Val Flores, a Denver Democrat. “I think the research shows that it could be up to 10 years.”

Board vice chair Angelika Schroeder, a Boulder Democrat, said the centers deserved more time but that the state board would hold the charter accountable when it was time.

“It will still be the responsibility of this board to look at the turnaround schools,” Schroeder said. “But now’s not the right time.”

Superintendent Munn said he respected the board’s decision, adding that he believes their vote means they’ll consider Aurora’s demographics when making decisions about his schools on the state watchlist.

“By a unanimous vote, the State Board has held that our accountability framework should consider the unique circumstances of schools and the communities they serve,” he said in a statement. “We look forward to working with the State Board and the Colorado Department of Education under this new guidance.”

Van Schoales, CEO of A-Plus Colorado, an education reform group doing work in Aurora, said the board’s reversal sets a terrible precedent.

“This has huge ramifications that go beyond Aurora,” he said. “It takes away any bar for school quality in the state of Colorado. According to the state board, what several said was all that mattered was what parents wanted. That is the equivalent of selling a Pinto to a family,” a reference to the 1970s car known for exploding into flames in rear-end collisions.

HOPE administrators told the State Board centers in Aurora that serve mostly low-income students are making strides.

“We’re well above average growth,” said Janet Filbin, HOPE’s director of student achievement, referring to results from an early education literacy test.

Aurora isn’t the first school district to try to evict HOPE. The Eaton school board tried twice to shutter HOPE’s learning center in the district near Greeley. The State Board overturned those decisions.

Munn’s recommendation to shutter HOPE was a part of a school improvement agenda that includes setting free a cluster of five schools from some state and district policies and turning over a low-performing elementary school to a Denver-based charter network.

Correction: This article has been corrected to attribute a quote to Van Schoales, not Rico Munn. Schoales said: “According to the state board, what several said was all that mattered was what parents wanted. That is the equivalent of selling a Pinto to a family,” a reference to the 1970s car known for exploding into flames in rear-end collisions.

Changing course

After pressure from school board members, University of Memphis middle school drops its academic requirement

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
University of Memphis' elementary, Campus School, is one of the highest achieving schools in the state.

Leaders of a popular elementary school known for its high academic performance are changing the entrance requirements at a proposed middle school in hopes of creating a more diverse student body.

After the Shelby County Schools board raised concerns that the University of Memphis’ plans would continue a pattern of student enrollment from its elementary school, Campus School, that is mostly white, university leaders said last week they would drop the academic requirement for the middle school.

Most Memphis students do not meet state standards for learning. Under the revised proposal, students would need satisfactory behavior records and fewer than 15 unexcused absences, tardies, or early dismissals.

In addition, the school is meant to be a learning lab for teachers earning their degrees. School leaders hope these teachers will eventually return to the Memphis school system to work with children who live in poverty. But currently, the student body doesn’t reflect the population school leaders want to serve.

“We need to make sure that new teachers are getting everything they need. That way you then can learn how to be successful in a diverse community,” board member Miska Clay Bibbs said.

White students made up two-thirds of the elementary school in 2017, the highest percentage in the district. Only 8 percent of the students lived in poverty — the lowest in the district. By comparison, more than half of students in Shelby County Schools live in poverty while only 8 percent are white.

The Memphis district has added more speciality schools in recent years to attract and retain high-achieving students, including white students, who might otherwise choose a private school or schools in the surrounding suburbs. Campus School is one that attracts a lot of white families.

It wasn’t always like that, board member Michelle Robinson McKissack said. She and other board members urged university leaders to do more intentional outreach to the surrounding neighborhood that would have priority in admissions.

“It’s surprising to me that it did seem to be more diverse when I was a child going to Campus in the mid-70s than today,” she said. “And I want to ensure that University Middle looks like Campus looked when I was going to school there.”

Until recently, Campus School was the only school with a contract in the district. Compared to charter schools, contract schools have more say in how they choose students. That allows the University of Memphis to give priority to children of faculty and staff.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
University Middle would be housed in the former St. Anne Catholic School near Highland Street and Spottswood Avenue.

Paul Little and his wife chose their house because of its proximity to Campus School. If the university’s middle school had been open, he would have enrolled his oldest daughter there. He considered other public options, but ultimately decided on an all-girls private school.

“For a long time, I was against private schools in general because if people with high academic achievers pull their kids out of public school, you’ve left a vacuum,” he said.

Little, a White Station High School graduate, disagrees with the assertion that Campus School is not diverse, citing several international students who are children of University of Memphis faculty.

At a recent school meeting, “when I looked out over the cafeteria, I saw a lot of diversity there… That’s never been a concern for me,” he said. He said he was encouraged by the university’s outreach plans “to make the school as diverse as possible.”

Board members are expected to discuss the contract with University of Memphis on Tuesday night, vote the following week, and then open online applications to the school Jan. 30. The school would open in August with sixth-graders with plans to add one grade each year after that.

voices of the vote

Meet Denver teachers who voted yes to a strike, no to a strike — and just aren’t sure

PHOTO: PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Skinner Middle School math teacher Peter English walks out of the Riverside Baptist Church with his son, Landon, left, and daughter Brooke strapped to his chest after voting on whether to go on strike ()

Throughout the day, the parking lot of Riverside Baptist Church filled up as Denver teachers made their way into a meeting organized by their union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.  

Months of negotiations that failed to produce a deal between top leaders of Denver Public Schools and the union had given way to individual teachers facing a choice: To strike or not?

Along with reporting the news of the day — which you can read about here — Chalkbeat spent time visiting with teachers to get a sense of what was shaping their decision-making.

Most teachers we spoke with, both in depth and in passing, said they voted “yes” to strike. Union officials have said two-thirds of those who vote Saturday and in a second session Tuesday must sign off on a strike for it to proceed, and the prevailing wisdom among teachers we interviewed was that support is strong.

The decision, though, is far from black and white for many teachers, regardless of where they ultimately land.

Here are the stories of three teachers, all at different places:

Krista Skuce, Slavens K-8 school: Yes to strike

At the urging of teachers and parents, Slavens K-8 students turned out early on a few recent mornings to show support for their teachers. They wore red in solidarity and posed for pictures.

They also brought questions. “Why are you doing this?” was one.

Krista Skuce, a physical education teacher and 14-year Denver Public Schools employee, would tell students that she lives 40 minutes from the school because she can’t afford to live in Denver.

Krista Skuce

But there is more to her story. Her spouse, she said, is no longer able to work, beset by medical issues, unable to draw disability benefits, and in need of costly care including massage therapy, chiropractic appointments, neuromuscular therapies, and more.  

At the same time, Skuce said her pay “doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.” So she hustles, earning extra pay by driving across town to coach softball and basketball.

Skuce, like many teachers who stopped to talk about their votes on Saturday, believes the district can do more to boost teachers’ base pay — before bonuses and incentives.  

She said her salary has only increased $4,000 or $5,000 in the past 14 years, even though she has been teaching 27 years, has a master’s degree, and is National Board Certified.

Skuce said she knows that by voting to strike, she could very well end up taking money out of her own bank account. Striking teachers don’t get paychecks.

“I am hoping the district and the DCTA do the right thing and recognize the fact that there are some people here who are on the edge,” she said. “We are on the edge emotionally, financially. We know these are good people. And I think teachers are people who wake up every morning with forgiveness.

“You have to take a stand and say what you are for at some point in time in your life — and this is it,” she said. “I’m willing to do it, scary or not.”  

Jason Clymer, John F. Kennedy High School: No to strike

An English teacher at John F. Kennedy High School, Jason Clymer stands with his fellow union members in the belief teachers aren’t paid enough. He finds fault with what is asked of teachers through LEAP, the district’s growth and performance system for teachers.

“Teachers at my school feel extremely micromanaged and can’t catch a breath,” he said.  

But in the end, after being one of the first teachers in the door Saturday and attending an information session, Clymer said he voted against the strike.

“Going on strike is very hard,” said Clymer, whose wife works in human resources for the district’s central office. “And I think the agreement DPS came to was close enough.”

Clymer questioned picking a fight now because of the limited scope of the negotiations. That would be the current agreement governing ProComp, the pay system that provides teachers one-time bonuses for things like teaching in a high-poverty school, getting strong evaluations, having students who earn high test scores, or teaching in a high-performing school.

He said he’d like to save some political leverage to focus on other issues covered by the district’s main contract with the union.

“It’s really unfortunate these things can’t all be negotiated together,” he said. “If the district came out and said, ‘We want to give you more money, not as much as you like, but we want to devote more to things like mental health services,’ I really think that would be a winning argument.”

In opposing a strike, Clymer said that he did not want to divide his fellow teachers

“Although I voted no, I believe in the union,” he said. “And if the union voted to strike, I will absolutely support the union.”

Paula Zendle, Denver Green School: Undecided about strike

Paula Zendle is dreading the moment that is appearing increasingly likely: standing before her students at the Denver Green School and explaining why she won’t be there to teach them.

“I tell them constantly, ‘Don’t miss school, don’t miss school. Don’t be absent, don’t be absent, don’t be absent,’” said Zendle, her eyes welling up with tears as she waited on a friend. “I have been fighting to avoid a strike. I hate this. It’s utterly and totally agonizing to me.”

Paula Zendle

Zendle said she left a career in the corporate world for the classroom and has been teaching eight years. She teaches English language acquisition and Spanish at the Green School, a popular and highly-rated middle school option in a district that celebrates choice.

 Zendle said she has done her research and written to the district’s chief financial officer. What bothers her is a system she believes rewards younger teachers and underpays teachers in terms of the cost of living.  

The average Denver teacher currently earns about $51,000 in base pay and $57,000 with incentives, according to data from the state education department and the district. That’s less than teachers in districts like Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, and Littleton.

District officials have agreed to put $20 million more into teacher compensation and defended their most recent offer on Saturday as “compelling.”

For Zendle, the prospect of facing her students — and that she works in a supportive school environment — is contributing to her struggle in deciding whether to vote “yes” to strike.

So if the moment does come, what will she tell her students?

“We have the right to protest unfair taxpayer spending,” she said. “This is not only unfair, it’s unconscionable. Their priorities have been wrong for 10 years.”

Then she paused and made clear that her decision had not been made. She considers herself a person of principle, and that will guide her in making a decision.