Overworked and underpaid at COVA?

Click here to listen to the KUNC public radio report on Grace Hood’s COVA investigation.

Enrollment for kids of all ages is booming at Colorado’s 22 full-time multi-district online schools. This year, about $30 million in taxpayer money is expected to go to the largest, Colorado Virtual Academy. The school is free and promotes a more individualized approach to coursework and virtual interaction with Colorado teachers.

But with an estimated 77 cents of every taxpayer dollar the school receives going to its for-profit management company, some former teachers say they were unable live up to the school’s promises. The news comes as Colorado legislators are preparing to introduce a bill that would increase accountability for the quickly expanding online programs.

Student Overload?

Online schooling is an attractive option for parents and students because schedules are flexible and kids can work from home. It’s those same qualities that attracted Casey Longo to Colorado Virtual Academy. The middle school English teacher was there for five years until the spring of 2011 when her contract wasn’t renewed. She says she felt overwhelmed by crushing workloads the first semester of many school years, which made it nearly impossible to give individualized attention to kids having problems.

About this story

“What I really need to do is get them on the phone, open my computer, open their computer and walk them through it,” she says. “That would take an hour plus. You can’t do that with 250 students. You can’t.”

A five-month investigation by KUNC shows Longo wasn’t alone. Records confirm workloads for middle school English teachers as high as 240 students during the first semester of the 2010-2011 school year and equally large numbers for some high school instructors. Other former teachers speaking off the record reported similar challenges.

That’s despite support from advisors and counselors, who worked with teachers.

Colorado Virtual Academy Board Member Randy DeHoff calls the data misleading because it represents the beginning of the year before school officials have had a chance to respond to changes in student enrollment.

“I don’t think you can really draw any conclusions that mean anything from just looking at that one number,” says DeHoff, who served on the Colorado Board of Education for 12 years.

Records show that Colorado Virtual Academy added two high school English teachers second semester. But that happened after student counts had dropped by more than 300.

“We’re not getting a consistent message from the teachers that they’re overwhelmed,” he says.

K12 Inc.

According to Longo and others, the heart of the problem stems from who manages the school.

Colorado Virtual Academy — which is taxpayer funded — is run by the education management organization (EMO), Virginia-based K12 Inc. It’s a publicly traded, for-profit company that manages 29 virtual public schools across the country. It oversees everything from marketing to teacher staffing at the schools. Several Colorado school districts also contract with K12 Inc. for online curriculum. Last May, Insight School of Colorado came under K12 Inc. management after the company purchased Insight’s parent company, Kaplan, Inc.

Mary Gifford, regional vice president of K12 Inc., says that she and other Colorado Virtual Academy administrators continually monitor enrollments and withdrawals to ensure proper staffing.

“The goal has always been to make sure that kids are ready to learn and teachers are ready to teach on day one,” she says.

However, these questions about staffing aren’t unique to Colorado. Complaints over teacher turnover and pay have contributed to a unionization battle in Pennsylvania at Agora Cyber Charter School. And K12 Inc.’s own shareholders have filed suit, alleging it provided misleading information about student-to-teacher ratios and other practices. The complaint references a New York Times exposé published last December. K12 Inc. has vigorously disputed those claims.

But former teacher Casey Longo questions the bottom line.

“If a teacher has 300 students instead of 150, it’s one less teacher that they have to pay,” she says. “It’s an extra $30,000 that goes into the pocket of K12, which is a corporation.”

According to an open records request, nearly 75 percent of Colorado Virtual Academy teachers make less than $35,000. And only four are at or above the state average of $49,000. These amounts do not include bonuses or merit pay. KUNC was denied access to the salaries of school administrators. That’s because administrators are employees of K12 Inc., and the school said the records were not in their possession.

A $1.3 Million Question

During the course of this investigation, KUNC came across an apparent discrepancy in the school’s audited financial records. Last school year when Longo and others complained about workloads, Colorado Virtual Academy reported spending an extra $1.3 million dollars on instructional expenses (pg. 19 – PDF) related to “increased teaching and support staff to support higher student attendance and achievement.” The note explains that instructional expenses include “activities dealing directly with the interactions between teaching staff and students.”

Screenshot from COVA website.

Officials responded to a records request and numerous emails, but never directly answered KUNC’s questions about specific increases in “staff”. Colorado Virtual Academy Head of School Heidi Heineke-Magri spoke with KUNC via telephone about the expenses, but declined to speak on the record.

According to previous correspondence, the extra money was connected to unfunded students who came in after a statewide count that had already determined public funding. In the past, Heineke-Magri explained in an email that Colorado Virtual Academy has outsourced some teaching for these students to “licensed contractors” to not impact workloads for teachers like Casey Longo.

But if taxpayer money was used for something as innocuous as unfunded students, why was the school so reluctant to provide details?

The Road Ahead

Questions like these come at a critical juncture for the more than 10-year-old Colorado Virtual Academy, which is seeking state renewal for its charter status this fall. Its state academic rating is “priority improvement,” which is the third lowest out of four rankings.

In 2011 the school’s graduation rate was 22 percent [Excel spreadsheet], up from 12 percent the year before. (Read COVA’s statement on its graduation rate here.)

“We know the most important component of a quality education whether it’s face-to-face brick-and-mortar traditional school or online school is the quality of the teacher,” says Susan Patrick, president and CEO of the advocacy organization International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL).

When it comes to gauging teacher staffing, Patrick explains that access to a high-quality teacher is more important than specific ratios. That’s because she says instructional models at online schools are so different. In addition to teachers, the COVA model relies on parents to serve as learning coaches for students.

“Even if you have different staffing models, it should be about the student learning,” she says.

K12 Inc. has been working to improve student learning at Colorado Virtual Academy by spending more than $1 million of its own money on initiatives. This includes changing their middle school model, hiring eight additional advisors — who may not have teaching credentials — to work alongside middle school instructors.

Since the state leaves operational decisions up to individual charter schools, it’s ultimately up to Colorado Virtual Academy board members like Randy DeHoff to determine if the taxpayer money is being used in the best interest of students.

“We look at the money that is going to K12 — not just when we approve the budget — but at every board meeting. Here’s what’s going out, here’s what we’re getting for it,” he says. “We’re constantly asking are we getting our money’s worth?”

Colorado Virtual Academy received nearly $30 million in state funding last year. $22.7 million went to its management company K12 Inc. Their contract agreement ends in 2018.

KUNC reporter Grace Hood can be reached at

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede