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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

Aurora district not renewing agreement to allow Hope Online learning centers in its district

Like it did three years ago, Aurora school officials are again trying to close centers operated in their district by the online charter network Hope Online.

Superintendent Rico Munn made the decision Wednesday, after hosting a hearing Tuesday night.

Aurora school board members expressed concerns about the low performance of the school’s students, and the lack of control the district has over what happens in what the network calls learning centers, where students attend school.

Parents and staff from Hope described feeling at home at their learning centers and shared stories about how traditional schools were not a fit for their students.

“My oldest daughter who is now in eighth grade was not learning in her previous school,” Martha Baron, a mother of two Hope students, told the board through a translator. “Since we made the change, her grades have been higher and she is gaining valuable knowledge that is helping her throughout her life.”

Ultimately, the performance issues weighed most in Munn’s decision, according to his letter.

“It is clear that Hope Online staff and families value the community Hope provides, however this does not translate to improved academic performance,” Munn’s letter states. “The district believes there is a legitimate concern that Hope Online Learning Centers do not offer an educational opportunity that is in the best interests of the students of Aurora.”

Officials from Hope can appeal the decision to the state. A spokeswoman said Wednesday that leaders are “considering all of our options.”

Hope Online, a multi-district online school with its charter authorized in Douglas County, operates in three buildings within the boundaries of Aurora’s school district, but has several other centers in other districts. Based on a Hope model, students work on their online classes and receive some “face-to-face” instruction at the learning centers from teachers and charter network mentors. Some of the centers also offer sports.

The Douglas County school board approved a charter renewal for the school in January, and the new contract this week. One board member voted against the contract noting the low performance.

The Aurora school district, and not necessarily the board, must give Hope permission to set up the centers to operate within its boundaries, but decisions about the school’s existence are left to the Douglas County school board where the charter is authorized.

The three centers in Aurora enroll about 480 students who live in the district.

In 2016, when Aurora attempted to close down the learning centers, also citing performance reasons, the Colorado State Board of Education overturned the local district’s decision on appeal.

But some things have changed since then, including the political majority of the state board, as well as the performance of Hope’s students.

Hope has the only elementary school students in the state to be on Colorado’s performance watch list — a kind or probationary academic status — now for eight years in a row, for not meeting state standards on tests. The charter is on a state-ordered improvement plan, and must show better results this fall, or could face closure by the state next year.

The middle school made some improvements and is no longer on state watch lists, but the high school’s performance has fallen.

According to a progress report from state officials last month, Hope has made some strides toward complying with changes that are supposed to show improved results, but has had to change course on how it will improve the quality of its mentors who work in each class alongside teachers.

Munn wrote in his letter that based on a site visit, the mentors seem to be involved heavily in working with students, and thus the district is concerned with their quality.