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

File photo of HOPE Online student studying at an Aurora learning center.

Nicholas Garcia/Chalkbeat

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

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.