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An in-depth look by I-News - a Colorado-based nonprofit investigative news collaborative, Education News Colorado, and KUNC at the state’s online K-12 schools. Topics include: online K-12 school performance, state- and district-level oversight, and for-profit Education Management Organizations, such as K12 Inc.

With District Changes Looming, Colorado’s Largest Online School Considers Split

Sean McGrath
Creative Commons

Big changes are in the works for the state’s largest full-time online k-12 school, Colorado Virtual Academy. The school and its management company, K12 Inc., are considering separating into a K-8 school and a high school, according to K12 Inc. Regional Vice President Mary Gifford.

“There are some distinct differences and it would make sense to measure them separately and have systems of transparency to look into both separately,” she says.

KUNC profiled Colorado Virtual Academy in March, asking why 77 cents out of every taxpayer dollar went to the charter school’s for-profit management company, K12 Inc., rather than to teachers and overhead expenses.

Despite COVA’s claims of personalized support, KUNC raised questions whether this was available to all students.COVA disputed that report, pointing to the unique aspects of running an online instructional model and other considerations.

Gifford says nothing is set in stone yet on the split. According to an internal school email, one change that’s already been made is a revamp to the school’s leadership structure. COVA Board President Tim Booker wrote that the school has replaced one head of school with three top officials who will oversee operations, instruction and act as an executive director.

“So this is adding some additional horsepower at COVA that we think is necessary given the size and the complexity of the school,” says Gifford. “And again it’s part of some long-term plans.”

Gifford says a similar leadership structure has been implemented at another K12 Inc. school, Arizona Virtual Academy.

Also in the works is a potential shift to a new authorizer for COVA. Right now the school partners with Adams 12 Five Star, a district north of Denver, which oversees operations and academic improvement. With COVA’s charter expiring next year, it’s now pursuing a relationship with the Charter School Institute.

“Given the complexities of running the state’s biggest charter and biggest online program, it may be a very appropriate fit right now to have an authorizer who does nothing but oversee charter schools,” says Gifford.

Ethan Hemming is Executive Director for the Charter School Institute, which oversees about two dozen schools--including three virtual schools. He says CSI sees how online schools are unique compared to brick and mortar schools. CSI has been working to improve their tools for evaluation in the last year.

“For academic performance, it is the same as everybody else. They need to show the growth and the status that any other school would,” he says. “But when it comes to some of these other areas we really need to get specific and thoughtful about the different delivery environment.”

COVA’s application is due August 22, and the school plans to discuss the proposed changes with teachers Wednesday.

Meantime, K-12 Inc.’s Mary Gifford says COVA is sufficiently staffed for this year’s enrollment.

“Our goal is really to have parents starting ready to learn on the first day and teachers ready to teach on the first day, and I think we’ve made big strides toward that this year,” she says.

Gifford says the school hired about 7 people to focus on family support and enrollment this school year—adding that the school is listening to the comments and concerns of parents.

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