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Struggling online charter school fights for a lower accountability bar

Updated: The State Board of Education has denied a struggling online charter school’s attempt to be judged using a lower bar for student performance and progress.

HOPE Online Learning Academy, a K-12 school which opened in 2005 and operates in several school districts around the state, may be entering its fourth year on a five-year countdown clock to state sanctions for continued low performance. In 2013, fewer than half of the school’s students who took standardized reading and math tests scored at the proficient or advanced levels.

The state’s accountability mechanism, known as the School Performance Framework, requires schools to meet a certain bar for student performance and improvement each year. If a school or district continues to fall short of that bar for five continuous years, they risk sanctions from the state that include restructuring or closure.

School officials argue that the school should be judged not against all of the state’s schools, but rather against other schools that, like HOPE, serve primarily high-needs students. And so the school asked the state to become what’s called an “alternative education campus.” These schools, which have a specialized mission to serve high-risk, traditionally high-school-aged students who are far behind academically, are required to meet a lower bar for accreditation than most schools in the state.

But state officials recommended that the State Board of Education deny the school’s request, arguing that the online school does not meet the criteria for the lower accountability bar as laid out in state law and that the change would set a dangerous precedent for other low-performing schools who want to skirt accountability sanctions.

On Wednesday afternoon, the State Board of Education agreed with state officials, though not without some debate. After about 45 minutes of presentation and discussion, Republican board member Deb Scheffel moved to add HOPE to the list of alternative education campuses. That motion failed on a 3-4 vote, with Scheffel and fellow Republicans Pam Mazanac and chair Paul Lundeen voting for it.

Democrats Elaine Gantz Berman, Jane Goff, Angelika Schroeder joined Republican vice chair Marcia Neal is voting no on that motion.

Neal then moved to accept the staff recommendations, which denied the applications from HOPE and another online school, Achieve Online. That motion passed unanimously.

Heather O’Mara, HOPE’s chief executive officer, said that she would have to consult with both the board’s of the school and of Douglas County, where the charter school is authorized, before deciding whether the school would appeal the state’s decision.

The disagreement between the school and state officials boils down to two main issues. The first is whether HOPE’s struggling elementary and middle school students can be properly classified as “over-age and under-credit,” one of the legal criteria for students of alternative education campuses.

Because elementary and middle schools do not traditionally award credits to their students, state officials argue that provision means that alternative education campuses cannot properly serve younger students.

“It’s difficult for us to understand how five and six year olds can be overage and under-credited,” Colorado Department of Education Deputy Commissioner Keith Owen told the board, noting the 59 kindergarten students HOPE cited in its application. He said the attorney general’s office had advised the department that the law doesn’t cover younger students in that way.

HOPE officials, by contrast, have argued that if young students enter the school performing far behind grade level on state standardized tests, then they should be considered to meet the statute’s criteria for high-risk students.

“We believe that if you could identify a students risk factors at elementary or middle school, we could design a curriculum and learning plan to help them succeed by the time they get to high school,” O’Mara said. “I just feel like it’s best practice if we can do that.”

Berman said any policy change concerning younger students should be discussed separately, not in the context of the annual accreditation of alternative schools. “I never envisioned alternative education campuses as pertaining to elementary age school kids,” she said, after Lundeen and Scheffel made comments indicating support of HOPE.

School and state officials laid out their interpretations of the state accountability law in a series of correspondences over the course of the last month.

“Frankly, we just agree to disagree” on this issue, O’Mara said.

But state officials are also concerned that HOPE’s designation has much broader implications for how they are able to enforce provisions of the state accountability mechanism as many more schools face looming five-year deadlines to show big improvements or face consequences that include dramatic restructuring or closure.

“As we’ve inched closer and closer to this five-year accountability clock, we’re keeping an eye out for things in the system that seem to be a reaction to that clock,” Owen said. “On the surface, it seems like there’s implications and issues that are related to the accountability clock that we are trying to understand.”

That concern has also prompted representatives from several education reform groups, including A+ Denver, Democrats for Education Reform and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers to weigh in to the board. They argue that changing the designation of the online charter so long after its establishment would set a dangerous precedent for other schools approaching sanctions for continued low performance.

“If the state board were to approve this request, there would be hundreds of other schools serving more than 95 percent low-income (at-risk) students that could use this precedent as a means to turn back or stop the clock on the state’s accountability system,” wrote Van Schoales, head of A+ Denver, in a letter to the state board urging them to deny HOPE’s application. “As former Board President of the Colorado League of Charter Schools and a former charter school principal, I urge you to remain committed to a strong accountability system that holds our most disadvantaged students to the same high standards as their wealthier peers.”

Neal said she was concerned that granting HOPE’s request for alternative campus status would open the floodgates for many low-performing schools to apply for alternative status “to stop the clock on the state’s accountability system.”

But Elizabeth Celania-Fagen, the superintendent of Douglas County, where HOPE is authorized, dismissed concerns that designating HOPE as an alternative education campus would lower expectations for needy students.

“If HOPE’s application to become and AEC is approved, [Douglas County School District] can assure the State Board and CDE that it will continue to provide a high level of accountability to ensure that HOPE students receive the quality education they deserve,” she wrote in a letter to the board.

And O’Mara argued that the state’s performance framework system should do a better job accounting for schools that serve younger students who start very far behind.

“I agree with the [Colorado Department of Education] that its probably important that the education community work together to develop some more specific criteria to recognize students that are academically at risk at elementary and middle school levels,” she said. “I’m excited about the opportunity to work with the department to develop those rules.”

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