Approved plans help Aurora Central, HOPE avoid state ‘take-over’

“We are happy that the board took this final step with us to support the plan,” APS Superintendent Rico Munn said in a statement. “We were very proactive in bringing this idea to the state two years ago.

AURORA | The state Board of Education gave initial approval to plans from two Aurora-area schools with the goal of moving the underperforming institutions off of the state’s “take-over” clock.

Aurora Central High School and HOPE Online Learning Academy elementary and middle schools are about to enter into the sixth year of being in either a turnaround or priority improvement status — ratings indicative of poor performance.

Central is one of the largest schools in the Aurora Public Schools system and boasts a diverse student population. HOPE middle and elementary schools are charters, authorized by the Douglas County School District, and a part of a larger network of academies across the Front Range. HOPE — with brick-and-mortar locations in Aurora, Denver and Englewood — offers “blended learning” that combines classroom and online teaching.

The seven members of the Colorado Department of Education’s Board of Directors voted unanimously to allow Central and state board staff to continue work on a developing improvement plan; HOPE’s plan to address its performance issues was approved by a 6-1 vote. The two schools will now work with state officials and present a final version of those plans before the end of June.

State officials praised Central High School and APS in their presentation to the board for its proactive work over the course of several years to develop a plan, which includes a focus on student-teacher relationships and personalized learning. The board voted to allow the school to continue the work it’s doing through an innovation pathway plan approved by the state last year.

“We are happy that the board took this final step with us to support the plan,” APS Superintendent Rico Munn said in a statement. “We were very proactive in bringing this idea to the state two years ago.

“We worked very hard with our partners and community members to adopt and create this innovation plan,” he added. “We now are confident we can continue moving forward with (it).”

The innovation pathway for the school allows Central more flexibility to hire staff, change school hours and apply for waivers from district or state regulations. One portion of Central’s plan created a “house model” for the current ninth grade. Central divided the student body into four “houses,” linking those students to a  particular group of teachers, counselors and staff. The aim is to expand the house system as the current batch of ninth-graders moves forward each year.

“The goal is to make sure each student has a strong connection with a group of adults,” Munn said. “We hope it will lead to a variety of things. Early on, we’re seeing really strong numbers comparatively speaking for ninth-grade attendance, discipline and truancy.

“We don’t pretend it’s a magic bullet,” he added. “As we’re implementing it, we’re also learning. Our trending data says we’re going in the right direction. So far, we like what we’re seeing.”

Part of CDE’s recommendation was for Central High School to work with a management partner to help support the school with its innovation plan. Munn said the process also started with multiple outreach efforts to involve the school’s community.

CDE staff also recommended the state allow HOPE Academy to move forward with its plan, but two members expressed concern about how that plan would increase student accountability. CDE had recommended HOPE adopt an entirely new board, but the school’s plan instead called for an expansion of the board to include two new positions. HOPE argued in their presentation that the two new positions on the board would bring in different areas of expertise, while still maintaining a base of institutional knowledge from original board members.

HOPE Academy declined to offer more details of their plan or comment on the hearing, citing the quasi-judicial nature of the hearing and the final vote on the plan not having taken place yet.

The lone CDE vote against HOPE’s plan was from Democrat Rebecca McClellan, the board member who represents the 6th Congressional District and was elected in November. In her comments before her vote, McClellan expressed concern about the accountability of the school’s board since it is not elected by the public or parents of students. Both HOPE and Douglas County schools argued the school is held accountable by the charter renewal process the county already has in place.