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Ana Gramajo, left, is the co-director of HOPE Online Action Academy in Aurora. Here she works with a student on reading.

Ana Gramajo, left, is the co-director of HOPE Online Action Academy in Aurora. Here she works with a student on reading.

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

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.