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.

progress report

Slow progress, many challenges: How Colorado schools on improvement plans are doing

First grade students practice reading in Spanish in their biliteracy classroom at Dupont Elementary School in Adams 14. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

A new report on Colorado schools operating under state-approved improvement plans shows mixed academic results and slow progress getting all the necessary pieces in place.

State education department officials on Wednesday briefed the State Board of Education on schools and districts halfway through their first year on the plans.

State staff praised Aurora Central High School, noting that leadership in Aurora’s innovation zone and the consultant hired to help are providing good feedback to teachers as they focus in on improvements to the school. The data also show Aurora Central is making “small increases” in academic progress and more significant progress in attendance numbers.

The report also highlights problems that have come up in other schools or districts working on their plans. One example: Administrators in the Aguilar school district realized their language arts curriculum was not aligned to state standards. The report, however, noted that the district “moved immediately to work to adopt new materials,” mid-year with help from its consultant.

Colorado Department of Education

Adams 14 and its high school, Adams City High School, along with three schools from Pueblo City Schools, will be required to return to the state board for an evaluation if they do not earn an “improvement” rating or higher this year. The preliminary ratings will be available in August and finalized later in the fall.

Other schools and districts that were put on state-approved improvement plans last year, including the Westminster district and Aurora Central High School, have until 2019 to show improvements.

State officials are monitoring the progress of the schools and districts through site visits, data reviews, and grants. The state board next will be updated when the preliminary ratings are available.

Officials report that schools and districts are seeing a slower rollout of their plans than expected. In many cases, officials say, schools or districts have not built out the infrastructure and routines required to make their plans work. In other cases, other community issues are distracting educators from the work of the improvement plans.

“There’s some common themes,” Alyssa Pearson, an associate education commissioner, said during the presentation to the board. “But how it plays out… it’s different everywhere.”

Both are true in Adams 14. Community members have criticized the district for changes to recess, parent-teacher conferences, and more. The district has also been slow to learn to use its new school monitoring systems, the report said.

“While progress monitoring data is being collected, it is not routinely analyzed and discussed by school staff,” the state’s report notes. “For example, elementary data meetings are scheduled after school and staff attend on an optional basis.”

The mid-year report also notes that the Adams 14 data does not show the district meeting targets in math or literacy, although the middle schools were noted to be showing the “most consistent growth.”

At Adams City High School, a “lack of a valid interim assessment makes it difficult for the school, district and state to determine overall academic progress in the school” is a problem, the report concludes. According to the report, the district and school “have agreed” to use a valid interim assessment next year.

Read the mid-year progress summaries here:

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that officials in the Aguilar school district discovered the problem with their language arts curriculum on their own, rather than state officials notifying them.

learning curve

Westminster school will reopen as a Marzano lab school ‘to take on problems we haven’t solved yet’

Teacher Amy Adams walks around her classroom checking on students working independently on math at Flynn Elementary School in Westminster. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

An extended day and school year, new extracurricular activities including martial arts and lacrosse, and new uniforms are all part of what students can expect at a new Westminster school this fall.

The district plans to close Flynn Elementary School in north Westminster and re-open it as a Marzano Academy, only the second school in the country designed by local education researcher Robert Marzano. This is part of the district’s improvement plan approved by the state last year as it tries to change years of low performance.

The board of education for Westminster Public Schools Tuesday night approved the closure of Flynn Elementary along with an innovation plan to reopen the school as a Marzano Academy.

Flynn Elementary, near the corner of 88th Avenue and Lowell Boulevard, currently serves about 275 students of which 75 percent qualify for free or reduced price lunch, a measure of poverty. The school’s teachers will lose their jobs, but students will automatically be re-enrolled to stay in the building when the school reopens in the fall.

The Marzano Academy model will be used to help the school’s teachers — and others across the district — improve their use of the district’s competency-based learning model. It’s an approach that calls for students to be grouped and to advance based on what they have proved they learned, not based on their age or how long they’ve been in one grade level.

Westminster schools have been using the model for about seven years, but the majority of the district’s students have not performed well on annual state ratings. District officials have argued that the state’s way of testing students isn’t fairly tracking their progress, but state officials haven’t excused the district. Now after years of low ratings from the state, the district is on a timeline to show students making improvements, or it could face more action from the state.

District officials worked with Marzano this year to write the school’s innovation plan which details a five-level framework for high quality that starts with creating a safe culture.

The plan was not made public until after the board vote Tuesday night. In it, there are details about the school’s plan to personalize learning, including requiring that every student complete a project every year. There are also specifics about teacher coaching and evaluation.

The Marzano Academy will be run as a lab school where teachers will be coached on using the best strategies to teach students so they can then model those strategies for other educators in the district or across the country. Marzano said being a lab school also means studying problems.

“The lab part is to take on problems we haven’t solved yet such as how do you teach kids at a developmentally appropriate level but make sure on some external test they are performing well,” Marzano said. “There’s no easy answer to that. There will be some very interesting things to discover.”

The school will open as a pre-kindergarten through fifth grade school, just as it is now, and will expand to include sixth through eighth grades, or levels as they are called in the district, in fall of 2019. This fall, all students currently at Flynn will be automatically enrolled to stay at the school when it opens as the Marzano Academy, but in the future, the school will no longer be a neighborhood-boundary school.

Principal Brian Kosena said that even though the school will become an open enrollment school without boundaries, students will not be hand-picked, although there will be caps on the number of students accepted each year.

“The idea of these research-based practices are that they should make a difference no matter what school or student population you serve,” Kosena said. “It benefits us, and it benefits Marzano if the school represents the neighborhood that the school is in. We want to maintain a neighborhood feel.”

The school is seeking to open as an innovation school to allow it to be free from laws and rules created for the traditional education model, according to the plan. The status must next be approved by the State Board of Education.

“Currently, local policies limiting the length of the school year, the school day, and school choice are all barriers to realizing the full potential of the plan,” the document states. “State regulations and policies regarding teacher qualifications currently prohibit or limit the use of otherwise competent individuals in the teaching process.”

Colorado’s innovation law, which grants schools flexibility from state laws, and district or union rules, states that as part of the process to convert a school into an innovation school, staff must vote and a majority must approve the plan. But in this case, because the current school — Flynn Elementary — will close, and because the Marzano Academy will open in the fall as a new school, no staff vote will be required.

Denver Public Schools followed a similar process between 2010 and 2012. The local teachers union sued the district, but last year, the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of the district and stated that the process was allowed.

All teachers currently at Flynn Elementary will be out of a job at the end of this school year. Those who want to work at the school when it reopens as a Marzano Academy must apply for positions. District officials say the current Flynn teachers will be guaranteed an interview, but will not have any other preference in the hiring process.

Asked if teachers will be placed in other district schools if they aren’t hired at Marzano, Kirk Leday, the district’s chief of staff and human resources director said in a statement, “We are confident that all of our non-probationary teachers will secure a position in our district for next year.”

Read the full innovation plan: