In Aurora Public Schools, district-run schools must perform well enough academically or face repercussions, including possible closure, if they don’t shape up fast enough.
The same cannot be said for the district’s charter schools. Charter school contracts don’t have standard language spelling out performance standards, and the school district doesn’t have a policy for dealing with academically struggling charter schools.
All that could change soon. District officials are in the early stages of drafting a new policy that would set clear expectations and consequences for its charter schools.
The district is acting now because one Aurora charter, AXL Academy, earned a priority improvement rating from the state this year, the second lowest rating on the state’s system.
District officials are calling for a thorough review of AXL Academy and will be asking school leaders to create an improvement plan within 30 days. Having a new policy applying to all charter schools could set clear expectations and outline a process to close charters that fail to meet those expectations.
“The purpose is so we have a consistent way of holding schools accountable — a consistent and transparent process,” said Lamont Browne, the district’s executive director of autonomous schools.
Under what the district calls the CORE Framework, officials identify struggling schools using the state’s quality ratings. Schools earning the lowest two ratings get on the district’s radar. The framework outlines a timeline that requires an improvement plan and directs additional help for the school the first time it earns a low rating.
By the third year that a school is still earning low ratings, the district must recommend turnaround or a school improvement strategy.
The school then has one to two years to show improvement. The district used this framework to recommend a charter school take-over for one school last year.
So far, only district-run schools have faced consequences under the framework because a charter school hasn’t fit the definition for low-performing. Now that it’s happened, the district is trying to figure out what pieces can apply to charter schools, or whether other steps might be needed.
For charter schools, Browne says it’s too early to know exactly what a new policy might say. Officials are starting by researching best practices across the country, he said.
For now, the more thorough review that will be required for AXL Academy won’t necessarily lead to any consequences.
Browne told the school board in an update Tuesday night that in the future, if reviews show a concerning trend, officials could make a case for a charter school revocation or nonrenewal.
With AXL Academy, the Aurora district already has some flexibility to connect school performance to consequences. Because the school experienced financial problems in 2014, and the district gave the charter school a loan, language was added to that charter contract stating the school has to “maintain a school performance rating of ‘Performance’ as measured by state and school assessments,” and that failure to do so could be considered a breach of contract.
If the school board found a breach of contract, the district could shut down the school.
Similar contract language could be required in all future charter school contracts.
Dan Cohen, executive director for AXL Academy, said that he is confident the charter school will show improvement soon, but that he is worried the district is mounting evidence to recommend closure.
“I have no qualms that we will pull out of priority improvement,” Cohen said “We feel quite good about what we’ve been doing, but I don’t know what that will mean to the district.”
Cohen said that he is unsure why the district needs a separate assessment and timeline process for charter schools, and that it might make sense for the timeline and process to be similar to traditional district-run schools.
As far as the improvement process that Browne told the board Tuesday that AXL Academy will be required to submit, Cohen said it’s news to him. He said school leaders are already scrambling with a 10-day deadline to edit the school’s state improvement plan.
“Their behavior right now looks aggressive,” Cohen said of the school district.
District leaders expect to present a proposed policy to the board by June.