Following a second appeal to state officials, HOPE Online, a multi-district online school, will get to reopen a learning center in Aurora this fall.
Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn terminated an agreement with the school in April, effectively closing three learning centers that HOPE operated within Aurora’s boundaries. District officials cited HOPE’s low performance in their decision.
On Thursday, State Board of Education members voted 4-3 to order Aurora to finalize an agreement with HOPE to reopen one learning center serving students in grades six through 12.
State Board members on both sides of the vote said there needs to be more scrutiny of HOPE’s hybrid model. One member accused the school of “gaming” the system.
State Board member Val Flores, who had been absent for the first appeal, cast the deciding vote to reopen the school. She said that although she wasn’t always a champion for charter schools, she supported HOPE because it is an alternative education center (AEC) with a “unique hybrid model.”
“This is very different than just a regular school, these are high-risk kids,” Flores said. “Given that Denver has several AEC schools and other school districts along the urban area have several AEC schools, I just don’t understand why Aurora doesn’t have one.”
The Aurora district now has 30 days to finalize the agreement with HOPE to allow the learning center to open.
In the school’s first appeal to the state, a 3-3 vote meant the district decision stood and HOPE’s learning centers would have to close. Almost immediately, HOPE Online submitted a new memorandum of understanding to Aurora, forcing the district to consider the school again.
Aurora argued that it should not have to reconsider HOPE’s learning center agreement immediately after it had closed the centers and had won on appeal. HOPE argued that the agreement was an entirely new one.
The State Board refused to provide an opinion, meaning the Aurora school board had to consider and vote on the new proposal.
The Aurora school board rejected HOPE’s agreement, citing concerns with student performance, and also the lack of control the district would have in the school’s operation.
HOPE Online is classified as a multi-district online school, meaning it can have online students from across the state, but the school is authorized through Douglas County, so only that school district can choose to revoke HOPE’s authorization. Aurora had tried unsuccessfully to close HOPE’s Aurora centers once before, three years ago.
In HOPE’s model, students work online but receive face-to-face instruction at the learning centers from teachers and mentors. Some of the centers also offer sports.
Flores said she had visited a learning center, two years ago, and was impressed.
After the hearing Thursday Aurora officials reiterated that HOPE’s low performance was their main concern.
“A majority of the State Board of Education determined that the culture and climate at HOPE was the most important, and arguably, only accountability factor that should be weighed,” Aurora officials said in a statement. “The State Board has given clear guidance to districts across the state.”
The district did not clarify what “clear guidance” they were referring to.
In their appeal, HOPE officials talked about the individual learning center they hoped to reopen, and the demographics and performance of that center. But only HOPE has access to its center-specific data since the state does not recognize each center as a school.
State Board President Angelika Schroeder accused HOPE of “gaming” the system “to hide stuff” by asking the State Board to consider the Aurora learning center’s performance individually, even though the state does not recognize HOPE’s or other online schools’ individual learning centers as stand-alone schools.
Charter schools, however, can have multiple buildings, but the state treats each one as an individual school that has to measure up to state expectations.
“I wish you could make up your mind what you want to be,” Schroeder said. “There’s a different kind of accountability expected for each one. You’re now pretending you’re a building but you’re not.”
State Board member Joyce Rankin, who supported HOPE’s appeal, still agreed that the state needs more clarity around HOPE’s model and proposed it for future discussion. Schroeder pointed out that HOPE will have another hearing with the State Board soon, because its elementary school failed to improve enough to get off of the state’s watchlist.
State Board members Thursday also discussed briefly whether they could order the district to enter into an agreement with the school for only one year. Although HOPE had recently proposed to Aurora a one-year agreement, state law dictates that when the state board grants an appeal, it must be for three years, which attorneys said the law considers “standard.”
District officials also noted that reopening a learning center in the middle of the school year might be disruptive to the students who are already in other schools. HOPE officials disputed that idea, and said most of their students are at other HOPE centers elsewhere and waiting for one near them to open.
Contacted afterward, HOPE officials provided more numbers. HOPE reported having 386 students in grades K-12 at the three learning centers that were closed in Aurora. Of those, 254 students remain enrolled in HOPE. The school that is reopening had 143 students in grades six through 12, and of those, 98 are still enrolled in HOPE at different sites.
HOPE refused to comment about how the students would be reintegrated into a reopened center, saying “we are still figuring out our next steps moving forward,” but said the lease for the center’s location remains current and that existing staff would move to the facility when it reopens.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.