A reason to HOPE?

HOPE Online charter school would dodge closure under state plan, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe

Ana Gramajo, left, is the co-director of HOPE Online Action Academy in Aurora. Here she works with a student on reading. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

One of Colorado’s lowest-performing — and most controversial — online charter schools would reorganize its board of directors and hire outside help to better recruit and train educators under an improvement plan negotiated with the state.

Leaders from HOPE Online Charter School and the Douglas County School District, which authorizes the charter, are scheduled to appear Thursday before the State Board of Education to hammer out final details of the plan.

The charter school also is facing pressure on a separate front: the Douglas County School District is threatening to shut down HOPE in 2018 if it doesn’t improve enough by next July when its contract is up, according to documents HOPE provided to the state.

No other details about that ultimatum were available because HOPE refused to comment for this story, and Douglas County district officials were not immediately available for comment.

The meeting with the state board comes after HOPE failed to improve during the last seven years. As a charter school, HOPE receives state funding but is operated independently from its authorizing school district.

The Democratic-controlled State Board of Education is hosting a series of meetings with districts and schools this spring to hash out improvement plans for low-performing schools. The state board, which under the state’s school accountability has the authority to order changes, largely has been working collaboratively with school districts on the plans.

Because HOPE is a charter school, the state board’s options are fewer. The state board can direct the school to be closed, change authorizers, reorganize its board or higher outside help. The state board can direct a district-run school to be handed over to a charter operator or apply for charter-like waivers.

HOPE is the only charter school facing state intervention this year.

The state education department stopped short of suggesting closing the school and its 26 brick and mortar learning centers where students meet daily, in part because of a recent uptick in student test scores.

“There is an opportunity for the school to improve,” said Brenda Bautsch, an accountability coordinator for the Colorado Department of Education. “And it serves a need for students who are choosing that alternative education.”

HOPE students are performing at much lower levels than the rest of the state. The average HOPE student scored more than a many points lower than the state’s average on both the state English and math test last year. And students still are making slow academic growth, according to state data.

Most of HOPE’s students are poor, Latino and learning English as a second language.

HOPE has one of the most unique school models in Colorado.

While it’s considered an online school, students are required to show up daily at a learning center. Learning centers are often found in strip malls or churches. They’re run by community leaders and a single licensed teacher. Classroom instruction is led by a mentor, who might not have any official teaching credentials.

The amount of time a student spends learning on a computer varies. At the elementary school level, almost all instruction is delivered face-to-face. At the high school, most of the instruction is online.

In their report to the state board, state officials suggested a more drastic option the board could consider — but one the state is not immediately recommending — to improve HOPE would be to convert its learning centers to individual charter schools. The state also raised the concern HOPE could be out of compliance with state law because so much instruction at the elementary school is not completed on a computer.

According to state law, students at online learning centers “must be actively participating” online for more than 50 percent of the day.

HOPE elementary school students spend about one hour a day on a computer.

Bautsch, the department’s accountability coordinator, said the state, district and charter are communicating with the attorney general’s office about options to address this issue.

“We want to make sure the students are getting the best instruction,” Bautsch said.

Part of what makes HOPE’s model so controversial is that it is authorized by a single district — the wealthy, suburban Douglas County School District — but operates learning centers mostly in low-income communities. Denver, Aurora and Pueblo all have HOPE learning centers.

Last year, Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn waged a public battle to try to kick HOPE out of its district boundaries. He, like other superintendents before him, argued districts have little authority over the learning centers that enroll students from his school district.

Munn and his school board canceled the district’s contract with HOPE, effectively shutting down the learning centers in the district’s boundaries. But the charter school appealed to the state board and won.

As part of its state improvement plan, HOPE will hire Jami Goetz, the former state director for teacher licensing, and Brenda Munzert, a former recruiter for Douglas County schools, to help improve teacher quality. The pair also will be responsible for providing quarterly updates to the Douglas County school board, state education department and state board.

Several details in HOPE’s plan still need to be worked out, state officials acknowledge. If the state board signs off on the plan tomorrow, the state and charter will work though specifics during the next 30 days.

Questions that remain unanswered: How much time will the charter get to reorganize its board and who will be responsible for selecting those individuals?

HOPE’s board has five members and meets quarterly. In 2016, the board appeared to have little knowledge of the school’s goals, according to state documents. State education officials hope a new-look board would include members with education and business management expertise that can hold HOPE leadership accountable.

“We did provided some detail about what we’d expect,” Bautsch said, but added it would be up to the state board to decide how to proceed.

new faces

State Sen. Dominick Moreno among candidates for Adams 14 board vacancy

Students waiting to enter their sixth-grade classroom at Kearney Middle School in Commerce City. (Photo by Craig Walker, The Denver Post)

A state senator is one of five candidates seeking to fill a vacancy on the school board for the troubled Adams 14 school district.

Dominick Moreno, a Democratic state senator whose district includes most of Adams 14, will be among the candidates the board will interview for the position on July 9.

Moreno said he got a legal opinion from legislative services that states he can serve on a local school board while maintaining his seat as a state senator.

The other candidates include:

The vacancy was created two weeks ago when then-board president Timio Archuleta abruptly resigned, citing the need for new voices and opinions on the board.

Many parents and advocates celebrated the resignation, saying it brought hope that the district, which has had made several unpopular decisions in the last year, would listen to the community and change. Adams 14 is facing state intervention after years of low performance and has experienced significant staff turnover in the last year.

The board, by law, has 60 days to fill the vacancy. The board is currently scheduled to vote on July 9 after the candidate interviews. The selected candidate will serve out Archuleta’s term until the next election in November 2019.

Moreno, who graduated from Adams City High School, has been a vocal supporter of the district throughout their turnaround process.

“Obviously the district is at a critical juncture on the accountability clock, and there’s been some unrest in the community,” Moreno said Thursday. “I believed we needed candidates who could come on to the school board and have the relationships and the experience needed to pull everybody together with a common vision.”

Moreno said he didn’t have any strong opinions on the controversial decisions the district has made this past year, including the pause of a biliteracy program, saying only that he would have a lot of homework to do if appointed and that every decision would be reviewed.

In the legislature, Moreno served on the influential Joint Budget Committee and sponsored legislation that required schools to serve breakfast to students from low-income families. He also supported a bill last year that created the opportunity for school districts to offer the seal of biliteracy, an additional endorsement on high school diplomas for students who could demonstrate fluency in two languages. Adams 14 was one of the first three districts to offer the seal, and it is still one of the components of its bilingual education program.

The school district posted the list of candidates Thursday evening.

Meanwhile, last week, the remaining four members of the district’s board voted to name Connie Quintana as the board’s president in a long process that included two failed attempts to reach a decision. Board member Bill Hyde criticized the process as a “circus.”

School choice

Denver area charter prepares to expand into the suburbs, bringing a new option to Adams 14

KIPP Sunshine Peak Academy students in a 2008 file photo. (Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Charter school officials from KIPP plan to propose their first Colorado school outside of Denver, a preschool through 12th grade school to be located just north in the Adams 14 school district.

The proposal would come as welcome news to some parents who asked the district’s school board at a meeting last month to approve KIPP’s proposal so that they can have more school options.

“I’ve been frustrated with our schools for a long time, and I’m ready for a change,” said Maribel Pasillas, one of the district mothers who spoke to the board. “I feel full of hope after seeing this school.”

KIPP’s proposal comes as Adams 14 nears a deadline on a state-mandated plan for improvement under the state’s new accountability process. If approved, KIPP, which aims to educate students living in poverty, would be the third charter school within Adams 14’s boundaries.

Kimberlee Sia, the CEO of KIPP Colorado, said she is aiming for opening in 2019. She said numerous factors led the high-performing network to target Adams 14, but a main reason was input from parents in the district.

Parents asked KIPP for a school that can provide biliteracy education, Sia said, and the network just designed a bilingual literacy program that will be used for their new southwest Denver elementary school. Parents also asked officials for the ability to volunteer in school, host events, and to have easy access to interpreters or translators, all things Sia said KIPP officials were happy to hear.

And parents said they wanted mental health and special education services along with a variety of class offerings such as yoga. Sia said KIPP schools already provide those opportunities. “I think those, to us, are pretty basic components,” Sia said.

One KIPP mom who lives in the Adams 14 boundary, Martha Gonzalez, told the district board she drives up to three hours per day to take her son to KIPP in Denver.

Gonzalez said she was recently surprised to learn more than 100 other parents do the same after choosing schools “very far away.” She asked the board to give those families the opportunity to have a KIPP school closer to their neighborhoods.

KIPP is looking at providing transportation for students that choose to go to the school.

KIPP officials found a lot of their existing students already come from the northern suburbs, since many left Denver as rent prices increased in the city.

In Denver, and in some other communities like Aurora, officials have started noticing the number of students who come from low-income families is dropping. But Adams 14 is one of the suburban metro-area districts where the number of students living in poverty is rising.

The state’s improvement plan for Adams 14 requires that the district demonstrate improvement in their state ratings that will be out this fall, or state officials could order further changes.

Among the options the state has for directing improvement, state officials could ask the district to hand over management of some or all of their schools to a charter school, an outside management company, or can ask the district to reorganize and merge with a more successful district.

District officials could also make those changes preemptively and then ask the state to back them.

But Sia said KIPP is not looking to turnaround a school in Adams 14. Instead, the charter school would open in a new building.

Officials from KIPP plan to submit their charter school application next month, before the Aug. 1 deadline. They know they want a new school that would grow to serve preschool through 12th grade students, and that they would provide mental health, language, and special education services.

This year, if KIPP completes their application, Aracelia Burgos, the district’s chief academic officer, would receive the charter school applications, but “applications will be reviewed by a committee and the Charter School Institute,” a district spokesperson said.

Sia and other KIPP officials will continue holding meetings with parents — sometimes with as few as eight parents, other times up to 30 may show up — and asking for input.

One Adams 14 mom, Maria Centeno, told the Adams 14 school board that she was impressed by what KIPP provided at their schools, including a counselor for alumni going through college.

But Centeno said, as great as those features are, “one of the things that most caught my attention was that they really asked us what we wanted in our school instead of just telling us how it was going to be.”

Centeno and several other parents who are helping KIPP design a school have already taken a tour of existing KIPP schools in Denver. Centeno said she noticed big differences comparing the charter to her existing district schools.

“I felt very happy to see all of the students in the school were working together,” Centeno said. “At my school they don’t celebrate our culture. At KIPP all of the students were together and, most importantly, they seemed to have fun.”

Other parents who spoke to the board about their tours at KIPP also mentioned seeing that teachers spoke in Spanish with the students, and that students seemed to have high expectations.

“Why can’t we bring schools that are already doing really incredible things?” Centeno asked the district’s school board.