hope for hope

HOPE Online gets reprieve from State Board, will continue operating in Aurora

A HOPE Online student works during the day at an Aurora learning center. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

The State Board of Education on Thursday blocked Aurora Public Schools’ efforts to kick a struggling online charter school out of the district’s boundaries, saying that parent choice trumped the school’s poor performance on state tests.

In June, the Aurora school board followed the advice of Superintendent Rico Munn and ended its agreement with HOPE Online Learning Academy, blocking the schools from operating this fall.

The reasoning: The multi-district online charter school has consistently failed to meet state benchmarks on standardized tests, and the district saw no proof it was trying to improve.

After HOPE officials appealed, the State Board voted unanimously Thursday to overturn the  decision, allowing HOPE to operate its five centers in the district for another three years. APS and HOPE officials must sign an agreement within 30 days.

“The fact that a school like HOPE might have a low performance rating pales in comparison to a parent who has a student that doesn’t want to go to school,” said State Board member Pam Mazanec, a Republican from Larkspur. “We have to give these parents options.”

HOPE Online is one of a few charter schools in Colorado that operates in multiple school districts. While students at other online-based schools may work exclusively from home, HOPE students are required to attend a learning center daily during the school year.

In Aurora, HOPE schools operate in settings ranging from strip malls to churches.

HOPE Online is on the state’s watch list for poor academic performance — as are several APS-run schools. But APS is not held accountable for HOPE’s performance on the state’s rating system because the school is chartered in Douglas County.

If the state’s struggling schools don’t improve by 2017 they will begin facing sanctions in 2017. The State Board will decide those sanctions from a list including closure, putting the schools under new management or some of their operations under new management.

Some state board members said they they believed HOPE, which serves a large population of students from low-income homes and English language learners, deserves more time to improve.

“I think it takes much longer than the five years to get any results, especially with hard-to-serve schools,” said board member Val Flores, a Denver Democrat. “I think the research shows that it could be up to 10 years.”

Board vice chair Angelika Schroeder, a Boulder Democrat, said the centers deserved more time but that the state board would hold the charter accountable when it was time.

“It will still be the responsibility of this board to look at the turnaround schools,” Schroeder said. “But now’s not the right time.”

Superintendent Munn said he respected the board’s decision, adding that he believes their vote means they’ll consider Aurora’s demographics when making decisions about his schools on the state watchlist.

“By a unanimous vote, the State Board has held that our accountability framework should consider the unique circumstances of schools and the communities they serve,” he said in a statement. “We look forward to working with the State Board and the Colorado Department of Education under this new guidance.”

Van Schoales, CEO of A-Plus Colorado, an education reform group doing work in Aurora, said the board’s reversal sets a terrible precedent.

“This has huge ramifications that go beyond Aurora,” he said. “It takes away any bar for school quality in the state of Colorado. According to the state board, what several said was all that mattered was what parents wanted. That is the equivalent of selling a Pinto to a family,” a reference to the 1970s car known for exploding into flames in rear-end collisions.

HOPE administrators told the State Board centers in Aurora that serve mostly low-income students are making strides.

“We’re well above average growth,” said Janet Filbin, HOPE’s director of student achievement, referring to results from an early education literacy test.

Aurora isn’t the first school district to try to evict HOPE. The Eaton school board tried twice to shutter HOPE’s learning center in the district near Greeley. The State Board overturned those decisions.

Munn’s recommendation to shutter HOPE was a part of a school improvement agenda that includes setting free a cluster of five schools from some state and district policies and turning over a low-performing elementary school to a Denver-based charter network.

Correction: This article has been corrected to attribute a quote to Van Schoales, not Rico Munn. Schoales said: “According to the state board, what several said was all that mattered was what parents wanted. That is the equivalent of selling a Pinto to a family,” a reference to the 1970s car known for exploding into flames in rear-end collisions.

departures

As fate of ‘Newark Enrolls’ is debated, top enrollment officials resign

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

The top officials overseeing Newark’s controversial school-enrollment system have resigned just weeks after the school board blocked the new superintendent from ousting them.

Their departure creates new uncertainty for Newark Enrolls, one of the few enrollment systems in the country that allows families to apply to district and charter schools through a single online portal. Proponents say the centralized system simplifies the application process for families and gives them more options, while critics say it undermines traditional neighborhood schools while boosting charter-school enrollment.

Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, chief of the Newark Public Schools division that includes enrollment, and Kate Fletcher, executive director of the enrollment office, both departed on Friday. The district did not provide information about why they left or who — if anyone — will replace them, and neither of the two could be reached for comment.

Their departure comes after Superintendent Roger León, who took over on July 1, included them among 31 officials and administrators who were given the option to resign or face being fired. Days later, the school board approved all but nine of the dismissals; Ramos-Solomon and Fletcher were among those spared.

Both officials were hired in 2013 shortly before former Superintendent Cami Anderson unveiled the enrollment system, then called One Newark, as part of a sweeping overhaul that also included closing some schools. Parents were outraged by the closures and the system’s glitchy rollout, which left some students without school placements and separated other students from their siblings.

In recent years, Ramos-Solomon has overseen improvements to the system, including tweaking the computer algorithm that matches students with schools to give a greater boost to families who live near their chosen schools. While district data shows that most students are matched with one of their top choices, critics remain wary of the system and some — including some board members — call for it to be dismantled.

León, a veteran Newark educator who was expected by some observers to oppose Newark Enrolls, said in a private meeting with charter-school leaders that he intends to keep the process in place. But he will have to win over the board, whose members have asked the district skeptical questions about the system in recent months, such as why some students are reportedly matched with charter schools they didn’t apply to. (The district says that does not happen.)

Board member Tave Padilla said he was not aware that Ramos-Solomon or Fletcher had resigned, and did not know whether replacements had been lined up. He added that the board had not discussed the fate of Newark Enrolls since a meeting in June where Ramos-Solomon provided information about the system, nor has the full board discussed the matter with León.

“The district now does have the option to keep what we have in place, modify it, or do away with it,” he said. “Whether we choose to do that or not, I don’t know.”

Future of Schools

Indiana is struggling to give kids speech therapy. Here’s why it’s getting harder.

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Indiana let emergency permits that make it easier for schools to hire high-demand speech-language pathologists lapse — and there won’t be time to address the oversight before the first day of classes.

“This is going to take legislative action to resolve,” said Risa Regnier, director of licensing for the Indiana Department of Education. “So there’s really no way to fix this for the beginning of school this year.”

The communication disorders emergency permits, which expired at the end of June, were created by a 2007 law to offer relief to schools struggling to find enough speech-language pathologists, educators say. While the number of students who will be affected wasn’t immediately available, nearly one-fifth of all special education students across the state need speech and language services.

The permits allowed schools to hire graduates of four-year speech-language programs who have been accepted to master’s programs, which are typically required for a full license as a speech-language pathologist.

But the employees who use these permits are no longer able to continue in their jobs, and the state cannot issue new permits unless lawmakers step in.

“You have to understand that we have a huge shortage of (speech-language pathologists),” said Ann Higgins, director of a special education cooperative that serves four districts in north central Indiana. “This is the beginning of my sixth year being director, and we have yet to be fully staffed … as a result, we’re constantly piecing together a puzzle, if you will, to provide speech services.”

These professionals can work in educational or medical settings, and their roles can vary widely depending on the students they serve. They might work on letter sounds with some students with milder needs, but they could also help students with more severe disabilities improve swallowing.

According to state data, 84 educators who currently have full communications disorders licenses once held emergency permits, and 190 have received them since 2007.

The emergency permits are a “last resort,” said Tammy Hurm, who handles legislative affairs for the Indiana Council of Administrators of Special Education. But they have made it possible for speech-language program graduates to work as pathologists while completing their licenses. With the permits, schools have had more flexibility around supervision, but permit-holders still couldn’t practice outside of what they’ve been educated to do.

Although the number of people affected might seem small, many districts are seeing a shortage, Hurm said, especially rural districts like Higgins’ that already have a hard time attracting people to jobs in their communities.

Because schools can rarely pay as much as a hospital or nursing home, schools are not as attractive for the already-small number of fully qualified speech-language pathology graduates. Part of that also stems from the fact that the needed master’s programs have caps on enrollment.

“A lot of the kids that graduate go directly into medical (jobs) because they pay more, they can work more days,” Higgins said. “Unless they have school experience or know that school is what they love … a lot go medical.”

This problem is not unique to Indiana. Across the country, demand for speech-language pathologists is projected to grow 18 percent by 2026, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s partially because of growth in other groups of people that need them, such as senior citizens, and because of growing school enrollment and earlier, more frequent identification of speech and language issues.

Without these permits, four-year graduates in speech and language can generally only be speech-language pathology assistants, which means they can offer certain services with supervision, Hurm said. Salaries can be hourly or close to what a starting teacher might make.

To get over the pay hurdle, Higgins has been creative. Her co-op runs entirely on federal funds, a strategy that began three years ago so she could pay speech-language pathologists higher salaries than what collective bargaining rules dictated. More than one-third of her budget is just spent on speech services.

But critics of the emergency permits say they’re a short-term solution and place under-qualified people in roles they aren’t prepared to handle.

Undergraduate students who study speech, language, and hearing sciences typically have only a theoretical knowledge of what communications disorders are like, not the clinical, hands-on experience they’d get at the graduate level to diagnose and treat children.

When the students get an emergency permit that grants them some responsibilities that usually only come with full licensure, it can be a disincentive to finish the program, critics point out.

“The problem with that is that those folks then are not put in a position where they have to continue their education,” said Janet Deppe, director of state advocacy for the The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. “We don’t necessarily believe that just putting a body in a place is going to make a difference in that child’s educational success and success beyond education.”

Adam Baker, spokesman for the education department, said education officials are discussing what to do about the permits now so that they can find a way forward and propose a solution during next year’s legislative session.

Higgins didn’t find out the permits were expiring until the spring — after the previous legislative session had already ended. With the emergency permits off the table for this year, Higgins has lost one employee. That leaves her with three full-time speech-language pathologists for the coming year in a co-op that serves about 1,170 students — 455 of which need speech services. To be fully staffed, she needs seven pathologists.

Each speech-language pathologist is responsible for about 60 students at a time, though it can grow to be closer to 70, she said.

To get by, Higgins is having retirees come in to supervise assistants, evaluate students, work on education plans, and write reports. She’s also using teletherapy — providing speech-language services over the internet — for high-schoolers, who generally need less intensive therapies.

The permit expiration is frustrating, she said, because it’s one more factor working against schools that have been trying to fully staff speech and language programs for years — and especially because for the majority of students, speech therapy can fix their issues. It’s not always the case, Higgins said, but many times, students’ speech or language problems are correctable with therapy, meaning they won’t need services in the future.

It puts the shortage, and the effects of losing the emergency permits, into perspective, she said.

“While there may not be many people impacted by this particular change … it just magnifies this whole shortage issue that we have with speech-language pathologists,” Higgins said. “We just lost a person that serves 60 kids.”