Who Is In Charge

State Board approves new statewide online school

The State Board of Education on Wednesday voted 5-1 to approve a new online school that will be operated by K12 Inc., a for-profit education company whose operation of another online school has been controversial.

Testing illustrationThe new College Prep Online Academy of Colorado will be overseen by the Colorado Digital Board of Cooperative Education Services, which consists of the Falcon School District near Colorado Springs and the Yuma district on the eastern plains. The new BOCES is in negotiations with Pikes Peak Community College for that institution to join the organization.

College Prep has contracted with K12 Inc. to operate the school, providing curriculum and teachers. K12 Inc. has been the operator of the troubled Colorado Virtual Academy, a charter school authorized by the Adams 12-Five Star district. The district has had concerns about the performance of COVA students but recently renewed the school’s charter for one year, with the understanding that Adams 12 would not authorize the charter after that. COVA also is renegotiating its relationship with K12 Inc.

The relationship between College Prep and K12 drew repeated questions from board member Elaine Gantz Berman of Denver, who ultimately was the only “no” vote.

“Why did you choose a vendor that has such a bad track record?” she asked.

Officials of the Digital BOCES defended their choice, saying they needed a vendor with the resources to get College Prep up and running by next fall. They also stressed that they will keep a close eye on K12.

“Where there has been strong governance, independent governance, K12 tools work very well,” said Rob Stannard, Yuma superintendent and president of the Digital BOCES board. He added that K12 has had problems when it hasn’t had strong oversight.

“It is not always about the vendor … it has a great deal to do with oversight,” agreed Peter Hilts, BOCES board vice president and a Falcon administrator.

Both said they feel K12 has a “mixed” record.

“We have a one-year contract with them. They either do it or they don’t,” said, Kim McClelland, interim executive director of College Prep. She also is a top administrator in Falcon. She said the district has successfully used K12 curriculum for its own online program.

Unlike COVA, Colorado Prep will not be a charter school but rather a school directly overseen by the BOCES, whose board includes representatives from the participating districts.

BOCES traditionally are organizations created by groups of neighboring school districts to provide shared services, such as special education programs. The Digital BOCES is a new wrinkle.

The new school plans to open in the fall, and McClelland said it is budgeted for 800 students next year. There has been speculation that Colorado Prep might draw COVA students. If it enrolls more than 50 percent of COVA students, Colorado Prep would inherit COVA’s state rating, which is priority improvement, the second-lowest level.

Colorado currently has 56 certified online schools or programs of five different kinds – multi-district online charters, multi-district schools run by districts, single-district schools, single-district online programs (as opposed to full schools) and supplemental online programs.

Some 17,289 students were enrolled in online schools in the 2012-13 school year, 39 percent of those students eligible for free- or reduced-price lunch.

The largest are COVA with 4,602 students; Hope Online Learning Academy with 3,079 students (chartered by the Douglas County Schools); GOAL Academy with 2,590 students (chartered by the Charter School Institute but transferring to the Falcon district), and Colorado Connections Academy with 1,534 students (not a charter, overseen by the Mapleton Schools). Total enrollment in those four programs is 11,805, 68 percent of the statewide total.

Here are accreditation ratings of the four programs:

  • COVA – Priority improvement
  • Hope Online – Priority improvement
  • GOAL – Priority improvement
  • Colorado Connections – Improvement

Get more information on Colorado online schools here.

BEST finalists jump another hurdle

The state board approved the recommended list of 2013-14 grants from the Building Excellent Schools Today construction program.

BEST program illustration
Illustration courtesy Capital Construction Assistance Division

The grants include $98.6 million in total costs for six large projects that are to be financed by lease-purchase agreements. Those include $64.1 million in state funds and $30.5 million in local matches, and the projects include new PK-12 or K-12 schools in six small districts: Creede, Kim, Limon, Moffat 2, Haxtun and South Conejos.

Also approved were two alternate projects worth $47.6 million for a new middle school in Fort Morgan and a new building for the Ross Montessori Charter in Carbondale. Either or both of those projects will be considered funding in November if any of the finalists forfeit their state grants because bond issue elections fail and those districts therefore don’t raise their local matches.

The board also approved $15.7 million in 24 cash-grant projects that will be used for roof replacements, new boilers, security upgrades and similar renovations. That group includes $9 million in state funds and $6.6 million in local matches.

The two lists were submitted to the board by the state Capital Construction Assistance Board. The lease-purchase projects are subject to final review June 19 by the legislative Capital Development Committee.

See the full lists and descriptions of lease-purchase projects here and the cash projects here.

Counselor Corps, literacy grants awarded

In other action Wednesday, the board approved $464,000 in grants to 14 districts and schools from the Colorado Counselor Corps program.

The program allows schools to hire additional counselors and otherwise update counseling services in order to improve graduation rates and other measures of student achievement. The program started in 2008-09. Individual schools receive grants for three years. According to the Department of Education, 85 percent of participating schools have retained their additional counselors after grant money ran out.

According to a report presented to the board, the 76 secondary schools that received grants in 2011-12 improved their graduation rates by 4.2 percent overall, reduced dropout rates by 1.2 percent and improved the overall counselor-to-student ratio from 363:1 to 261:1.

The board also awarded the first set of grants under the 2012 READ Act, the law that requires schools to improve literacy skills of K-3 students so that students are reading at grade level when they enter the fourth grade. The law allows lagging third graders to be held back in some cases and goes into effect for districts next school year.

In addition to $15.3 million in formula-based funding for all districts, the law also created a competitive grant program. Sixteen of the 21 districts that applied were awarded grants totaling $4 million. (See the full list.)

Turnaround 2.0

McQueen outlines state intervention plans for 21 Memphis schools

Candice McQueen has been Tennessee's education commissioner since 2015 and oversaw the restructure of its school improvement model in 2017.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has identified 21 Memphis schools in need of state intervention after months of school visits and talks with top leaders in Shelby County Schools.

In its first intervention plan under the state’s new school improvement model, the Department of Education has placed American Way Middle School on track either for state takeover by the Achievement School District or conversion to a charter school by Shelby County Schools.

The state also is recommending closure of Hawkins Mill Elementary School.

And 19 other low-performing schools would stay under local control, with the state actively monitoring their progress or collaborating with the district to design improvement plans. Fourteen are already part of the Innovation Zone, the Memphis district’s highly regarded turnaround program now in its sixth year.

McQueen outlined the “intervention tracks” for all 21 Memphis schools in a Feb. 5 letter to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson that was obtained by Chalkbeat.

Almost all of the schools are expected to make this fall’s “priority list” of Tennessee’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. McQueen said the intervention tracks will be reassessed at that time.

McQueen’s letter offers the first look at how the state is pursuing turnaround plans under its new tiered model of school improvement, which is launching this year in response to a new federal education law.

The commissioner also sent letters outlining intervention tracks to superintendents in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson, all of which are home to priority schools.

Under its new model, Tennessee is seeking to collaborate more with local districts to develop improvement plans, instead of just taking over struggling schools and assigning them to charter operators under the oversight of the state-run Achievement School District. However, the ASD, which now oversees 29 Memphis schools, remains an intervention of last resort.

McQueen identified the following eight schools to undergo a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration between the state and Shelby County Schools. Any resulting interventions will be led by the local district.

  • A.B. Hill Elementary
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Grandview Heights Middle
  • Holmes Road Elementary
  • LaRose Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Wooddale High

These next six iZone schools must work with the state “to ensure that (their) plan for intervention is appropriate based on identified need and level of evidence.”

  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Melrose High
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Westwood High

The five schools below will continue their current intervention plan within the iZone and must provide progress reports to the state:

  • Hamilton High
  • Riverview Middle
  • Geeter Middle
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Trezevant High

The school board is expected to discuss the state’s plan during its work session next Tuesday. And if early reaction from board member Stephanie Love is any indication, the discussion will be robust.

“We have what it takes to improve our schools,” Love told Chalkbeat on Friday. “I think what they need to do is let our educators do the work and not put them in the situation where they don’t know what will happen from year to year.”

Among questions expected to be raised is whether McQueen’s recommendation to close Hawkins Mill can be carried out without school board approval, since her letter says that schools on the most rigorous intervention track “will implement a specific intervention as determined by the Commissioner.”

Another question is why the state’s plan includes three schools — Douglass High, Sherwood Middle, and Lucie E. Campbell Elementary — that improved enough last year to move off of the state’s warning list of the 10 percent of lowest-performing schools.

You can read McQueen’s letter to Hopson below:

Mergers and acquisitions

In a city where many charter schools operate alone, one charter network expands

Kindergarteners at Detroit's University Prep Academy charter school on the first day of school in 2017.

One of Detroit’s largest charter school networks is about to get even bigger.

The nonprofit organization that runs the seven-school University Prep network plans to take control of another two charter schools this summer — the Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies elementary and the Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies middle/high school.

The move would bring the organization’s student enrollment from 3,250 to nearly 4,500. It would also make the group, Detroit 90/90, the largest non-profit charter network in the city next year — a distinction that stands out in a city when most charter schools are either freestanding schools or part of two- or three-school networks.

Combined with the fact that the city’s 90 charter schools are overseen by a dozen different charter school authorizers, Detroit’s relative dearth of larger networks means that many different people run a school sector that makes up roughly half of Detroit’s schools. That makes it difficult for schools to collaborate on things like student transportation and special education.

Some charter advocates have suggested that if the city’s charter schools were more coordinated, they could better offer those services and others that large traditional school districts are more equipped to offer — and that many students need.

The decision to add the Henry Ford schools to the Detroit 90/90 network is intended to “create financial and operational efficiencies,” said Mark Ornstein, CEO of UPrep Schools, and Deborah Parizek, executive director of the Henry Ford Learning Institute.

Those efficiencies could come in the areas of data management, human resources, or accounting — all of which Detroit 90/90 says on its website that it can help charter schools manage.

Ornstein and Parizek emphasized that students and their families are unlikely to experience changes when the merger takes effect on July 1. For example, the Henry Ford schools would remain in their current home at the A. Alfred Taubman Center in New Center and maintain their arts focus.  

“Any changes made to staff, schedule, courses, activities and the like will be the same type a family might experience year-to-year with any school,” they said in a statement.