Struggling online charter school fights for a lower accountability bar

A student works at one of Hope Online's learning centers. / File photo
A student works at one of Hope Online’s learning centers. / File photo

Updated: The State Board of Education has denied a struggling online charter school’s attempt to be judged using a lower bar for student performance and progress.

HOPE Online Learning Academy, a K-12 school which opened in 2005 and operates in several school districts around the state, may be entering its fourth year on a five-year countdown clock to state sanctions for continued low performance. In 2013, fewer than half of the school’s students who took standardized reading and math tests scored at the proficient or advanced levels.

The state’s accountability mechanism, known as the School Performance Framework, requires schools to meet a certain bar for student performance and improvement each year. If a school or district continues to fall short of that bar for five continuous years, they risk sanctions from the state that include restructuring or closure.

School officials argue that the school should be judged not against all of the state’s schools, but rather against other schools that, like HOPE, serve primarily high-needs students. And so the school asked the state to become what’s called an “alternative education campus.” These schools, which have a specialized mission to serve high-risk, traditionally high-school-aged students who are far behind academically, are required to meet a lower bar for accreditation than most schools in the state.

But state officials recommended that the State Board of Education deny the school’s request, arguing that the online school does not meet the criteria for the lower accountability bar as laid out in state law and that the change would set a dangerous precedent for other low-performing schools who want to skirt accountability sanctions.

On Wednesday afternoon, the State Board of Education agreed with state officials, though not without some debate. After about 45 minutes of presentation and discussion, Republican board member Deb Scheffel moved to add HOPE to the list of alternative education campuses. That motion failed on a 3-4 vote, with Scheffel and fellow Republicans Pam Mazanac and chair Paul Lundeen voting for it.

Democrats Elaine Gantz Berman, Jane Goff, Angelika Schroeder joined Republican vice chair Marcia Neal is voting no on that motion.

Neal then moved to accept the staff recommendations, which denied the applications from HOPE and another online school, Achieve Online. That motion passed unanimously.

Heather O’Mara, HOPE’s chief executive officer, said that she would have to consult with both the board’s of the school and of Douglas County, where the charter school is authorized, before deciding whether the school would appeal the state’s decision.

The disagreement between the school and state officials boils down to two main issues. The first is whether HOPE’s struggling elementary and middle school students can be properly classified as “over-age and under-credit,” one of the legal criteria for students of alternative education campuses.

Because elementary and middle schools do not traditionally award credits to their students, state officials argue that provision means that alternative education campuses cannot properly serve younger students.

“It’s difficult for us to understand how five and six year olds can be overage and under-credited,” Colorado Department of Education Deputy Commissioner Keith Owen told the board, noting the 59 kindergarten students HOPE cited in its application. He said the attorney general’s office had advised the department that the law doesn’t cover younger students in that way.

HOPE officials, by contrast, have argued that if young students enter the school performing far behind grade level on state standardized tests, then they should be considered to meet the statute’s criteria for high-risk students.

“We believe that if you could identify a students risk factors at elementary or middle school, we could design a curriculum and learning plan to help them succeed by the time they get to high school,” O’Mara said. “I just feel like it’s best practice if we can do that.”

Berman said any policy change concerning younger students should be discussed separately, not in the context of the annual accreditation of alternative schools. “I never envisioned alternative education campuses as pertaining to elementary age school kids,” she said, after Lundeen and Scheffel made comments indicating support of HOPE.

School and state officials laid out their interpretations of the state accountability law in a series of correspondences over the course of the last month.

“Frankly, we just agree to disagree” on this issue, O’Mara said.

But state officials are also concerned that HOPE’s designation has much broader implications for how they are able to enforce provisions of the state accountability mechanism as many more schools face looming five-year deadlines to show big improvements or face consequences that include dramatic restructuring or closure.

“As we’ve inched closer and closer to this five-year accountability clock, we’re keeping an eye out for things in the system that seem to be a reaction to that clock,” Owen said. “On the surface, it seems like there’s implications and issues that are related to the accountability clock that we are trying to understand.”

That concern has also prompted representatives from several education reform groups, including A+ Denver, Democrats for Education Reform and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers to weigh in to the board. They argue that changing the designation of the online charter so long after its establishment would set a dangerous precedent for other schools approaching sanctions for continued low performance.

“If the state board were to approve this request, there would be hundreds of other schools serving more than 95 percent low-income (at-risk) students that could use this precedent as a means to turn back or stop the clock on the state’s accountability system,” wrote Van Schoales, head of A+ Denver, in a letter to the state board urging them to deny HOPE’s application. “As former Board President of the Colorado League of Charter Schools and a former charter school principal, I urge you to remain committed to a strong accountability system that holds our most disadvantaged students to the same high standards as their wealthier peers.”

Neal said she was concerned that granting HOPE’s request for alternative campus status would open the floodgates for many low-performing schools to apply for alternative status “to stop the clock on the state’s accountability system.”

But Elizabeth Celania-Fagen, the superintendent of Douglas County, where HOPE is authorized, dismissed concerns that designating HOPE as an alternative education campus would lower expectations for needy students.

“If HOPE’s application to become and AEC is approved, [Douglas County School District] can assure the State Board and CDE that it will continue to provide a high level of accountability to ensure that HOPE students receive the quality education they deserve,” she wrote in a letter to the board.

And O’Mara argued that the state’s performance framework system should do a better job accounting for schools that serve younger students who start very far behind.

“I agree with the [Colorado Department of Education] that its probably important that the education community work together to develop some more specific criteria to recognize students that are academically at risk at elementary and middle school levels,” she said. “I’m excited about the opportunity to work with the department to develop those rules.”

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 [email protected]

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

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”