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.”

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