a reason for hope

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

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

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.

On Close watch

State’s lowest performing schools and districts taking hard look at this year’s test data

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Sixth-grade science teacher Monica Wisniewski works with Pija Williams Terralee, left, and Myth Cubbison at Kearney Middle School in Commerce City. Kearney is in Adams County School District 14.

Testing data for Colorado’s longest-struggling schools and districts show mixed trends.

Results released Thursday are from exams students took last spring, before the State Board of Education approved corrective action plans for the five districts and a dozen schools that had run out of time on Colorado’s accountability clock.

The Pueblo City 60 district saw a decline across many tests and grade levels while Westminster Public Schools showed improvements in 10 of 14 English and math tests.

Those districts, like other districts and schools facing state intervention this past school year, were already making changes before their state improvement plans were finalized. Much of that work is incorporated into the plans.

Thursday’s test data will be used toward a new state rating, one which these districts and schools must improve soon. The state plans gave most schools and districts until 2019 to earn a higher quality rating for face potential consequencs. But some, including the Adams County School District 14 and Adams City High School in Commerce City, must have a higher rating by 2018.

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.

The district of almost 7,500 students saw some improvements, but still is posting very low scores. For instance, 9.3 percent of fifth-grade students met the state’s learning goals in math, up from 7.9 percent last year. In that area, the district did better than the state, as fewer fifth graders did well on math tests statewide than last year.

At Adams City High School, growth scores, which represent how much students learned in a year compared to similar-performing students, decreased for both math and English. The school had an interim principal for much of the school year, which led to a student walkout in the spring.

Overall, Adams 14’s proficiency numbers are still lower than state averages.

Of these low-performing districts, the Pueblo City 60 district, which faced state action only for some of its schools but not as a district, was the only one that had decreases in growth scores for both English and math tests.

In English, the growth score was 43, down from 47 last year. That means students this year scored on average better than just 43 percent of Colorado students who had similar test scores last year.

The Pueblo district saw an increase in how many students met or exceeded expectations in eighth-grade English. One possible reason officials pointed to: innovation schools granted flexibility from some rules and state laws.

Dalton Sprouse, a district spokesman, said district officials are relatively pleased with the improvements they see in the data, especially when broken down by school.

“Given that there’s just two years of growth data, some of the fluctuation could be expected,” Sprouse said. “We see this as we’re maintaining the progress we made last year.”

Sprouse noted that two of the three schools that faced the state board earlier this year for low performance saw big increases in the number of students meeting math expectations.

“Some progress is starting to take place,” Sprouse said. “The assessment office is already working with principals to really dig into that data.”

Westminster Public Schools, another district that faced state action this year and is now on a three-year improvement plan, saw more improvements than the other districts on the state watchlist.

“We are pleased to see our focus on high expectations and personalized learning for all students is paying off,” Superintendent Pamela Swanson said in a statement.

The Westminster district, however, was also one of the only districts in the metro area where English language learners had worse growth scores than native English speakers in both math and English. Last year, there was no gap in growth on English tests.

Last year, about 40 percent of students in Westminster schools were English language learners.

In Adams 14 schools, where about 46 percent of students are English language learners, those students posted higher growth scores than native English speaking students.

Westminster did increase their overall rate of growth according to median growth scores, and reached above 50 for English language arts.

Aurora Public Schools, the only district at risk of state action next year, posted increases and also got one growth score above 50, which is critical to catch students up when they are behind grade level.

Here’s how districts that ran out of time on Colorado’s accountability clock — or districts that had schools that did — compared:

collaboration not confrontation

Colorado shied from taking aggressive action to fix its lowest performing schools. Will it be enough?

PHOTO: Nic Garcia

At historic Aurora Central High School, the last few years have been a trial.

Students have described widespread fights, high truancy rates and a heavy police presence. Academic performance has suffered, with fewer than half of all students graduating on time.

The clock finally ran out on the city’s oldest school this year. After six years of academic struggles, it was time for state education officials to intervene with a plan of action.

State officials could have closed Aurora Central or handed it over to a charter school.

But instead, they chose a far more lenient path — allowing the 2,100-student high school to continue a plan that began a year ago that gives the school more flexibility from the district’s school schedule, curriculum and hiring practices. The school was required to hire a consultant to help execute the plan.

This kind of approach — relatively cautious, devised in close collaboration with local school districts and reliant on outside consultants — sums up Colorado’s strategy this year for trying to turn around five districts and a dozen schools that have persistently struggled since 2010.

This was the first year under Colorado’s current school accountability system that required the state to take such action. The strategy of working collaboratively with school leaders reflects both the power of local control in Colorado and the philosophy of a department that has evolved in recent years from one that is less strong-armed regulatory enforcer and more partner.

Colorado’s approach is part of a growing trend away from aggressive state takeovers that produced mixed results in states such as Tennessee, New Jersey and Michigan.

“States have increasingly recognized that the work of school improvement is hard,” said Ashley Jochim, a researcher at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington.

State takeover of districts and schools was not on the table in Colorado. That’s because Colorado’s constitution puts ultimate control of schools in the hands of local school boards.

State and district officials explained in some cases why more aggressive steps — such as school closure or charter school takeover — weren’t feasible given the circumstances.

But concerns have arisen — including from some members of the State Board of Education, which had the final say on the plans — that Colorado’s efforts may not be drastic enough.

“Will this program work?” Republican board member Steve Durham asked while discussing the plan to improve Westminster Public Schools, a district with more than 9,000 students northwest of Denver. “I hope so. But I’m not sure it’s the kind of change that can ensure that.”

Van Schoales, CEO of A-Plus Colorado, an education reform advocacy group, said the state gave the schools and districts a pass.

“Nobody is losing their job, no one is forced to hand over a building,” he said. “I just think it’s outrageous and systemic. There were a lot of options — and the state board and CDE decided not to take them.”

No ‘silver bullet’

The 2009 law that created Colorado’s current accountability system gave the state board four options. It could direct schools be closed; turned over to a charter operator; redesigned under the state’s innovation law, which would give the school some flexibility from state law and district policies; or be managed in part or completely by an education management company.

The state also had the option to order a school district with too many low-performing schools to merge with a nearby district with higher test scores — a step officials did not take.

Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes acknowledged the challenges of choosing a course.

“What kept me up at night was that these are high-stakes decisions that affect real students and teachers and educators in these systems,” she said. “The toughest decision was making a decision, because you know there isn’t one silver bullet and there isn’t one right answer.”

As the state prepared to intervene, it appeared the favored course would be to allow districts and schools to radically redesign under the innovation law. The law allows for freedom in curriculum decisions, different school calendars, and makes it easier to hire and fire teachers.

But state board members and department officials grew worried the struggling schools were in no position to manage those responsibilities on their own.

In three cases, the state board approved a school’s innovation plan on the condition it also contract with a management partner to help put it in place. The state also directed six schools and districts not seeking innovation waivers to contract with an outside group for assistance.

“The state board found (innovation) as a strong option, as there would be some dramatic change,” said Brenda Bautsch Dickhoner, a state education department official who helped shepherd this year’s accountability hearings. “But we also want to make sure” the schools had strong leadership and necessary help putting the plans in place, she said.

While state officials may believe the combination of innovation status and external help could prove fruitful, one observer cautioned that the strategy poses risks.

“Schools often adopt a million different strategies, not recognizing that some of those are incompatible with each other,” said Lorrie Shepard, the former dean of the School of Education at the University of Colorado Boulder. “New leaders sometimes want a million of those things. Incoherence is bad, and only adds to the churn and the chaos in schools.”

The amount of authority each management partner will have varies from school to school. The Aguilar School District turned over considerable decision-making power to its partner, Generation Schools Network, a nonprofit organization that works in Denver and New York.

Westminster’s partnership with AdvancED will involve a more traditional consultant role, in which the outside officials will review and make recommendations to the district on how to better see through its unique approach to learning. AdvancEd has accredited the district, and officials told the state they will pull that accreditation if the district doesn’t meet their standards.

In some cases, like with Pueblo City Schools and the Adams 14 School District, the state board pushed for management companies to have more authority than the districts had envisioned.

During the process, department officials said that some options were just not viable.

State documents outlining recommendations for changes to schools and districts said that closing schools was not a good idea, in many cases because a better alternative was not available nearby. Other schools could not absorb such a large number of displaced students.

Turning over schools to charter operators was a nonstarter for many school districts, according to district officials.

Deirdre Pilch, superintendent of the Greeley school district, told the state board during a hearing that high-performing charter networks were not interested in taking over her schools.

Pilch said the former superintendent approached at least one high-performing charter network and was told Greeley’s low student funding wouldn’t support its model. Greeley voters have never approved local property tax increases, known as mill levy overrides, for school funding.

“They are not coming,” said Pilch, whose district does have seven existing charter schools. “So you know what? The work is on us. It is our job to take care of our kids.”

Dan Schaller, director of governmental affairs for the Colorado League of Charter Schools, challenged that contention.

“We’ve got charter schools operating all across the state in different districts and they make it work,” Schaller said. He added that “the real question” is whether school districts are willing to share available money with all schools or hold some back from charters.

Board member Durham, at one hearing, cited a lack of time as a barrier to charter schools playing a greater role. He said that by the time the board reviewed options, it was too late to suggest a charter school take over a school program in just a matter of months.

Schaller agreed, and added that charter school operators in Colorado are interested in playing a larger role in the turnaround of low-performing schools.

“It just has to be a much longer-term conversation,” he said.

The education department is considering options to make charter schools part of the mix moving forward. Charters receive tax dollars but are run independently of school districts.

One possibility is the state requesting proposals months in advance from charter groups that would volunteer to take over one or more schools in a certain region.

Working together — and the trouble that brings

In 2010, the Colorado Department of Education began a philosophical shift under the direction of then-commissioner Robert Hammond. The department would be less focused on making sure schools and districts are complying with state law and more focused on supporting their efforts.

That’s a philosophical approach Anthes, the current commissioner, continues to embrace.

“This is a human relationship-driven, complex endeavor,” Anthes said. “I find interacting positively, working toward a common goal, will bring us to a higher quality outcome faster. And that’s my North Star: higher quality outcomes the fastest way possible.”

In an effort to support schools — and avoid the political and emotional conflict typical of school improvement efforts — the department created a grant program for schools and districts to develop their own plan that the state board could endorse.

Javier Abrego, superintendent of Adams 14, called the state’s approach a wise decision that his community appreciated.

“Allowing us to choose our own pathway, I thought that was a very important strategy,” Abrego said. “It gave us ownership. They didn’t mandate anything.”

Other states, including Massachusetts and Tennessee, are experimenting with similar approaches, hoping that better involving communities into the school improvement process will yield better results than more heavy-handed takeovers. In both states, however, the education department has considerably more sway over how schools are run compared to Colorado.

The dual role Colorado plays in holding schools accountable and supporting school improvement efforts brings a host of problems, said Jochim, the Washington state-based researcher.

“When you’re charged with holding people accountable, can you also take responsibility for guiding the improvement process?” she said. “It’s tough to tell schools what to do, and when (they) fail you sanction them.”

Anthes said she sees the roles as complementary. She said the education department’s role is to provide guidance and expertise to help school districts complete the work.

“I do have confidence in the process and the plans that were put forward,” she said. “I’m not going to say they’re perfect. But I don’t think any intervention is the perfect solution.”