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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.

Colorado Virtual Academy Answers Tough Questions on Operations, Academic Performance

Grace Hood

Officials at Colorado Virtual Academy were in the hot seat Wednesday night as the school’s authorizing district questioned everything from its academic performance to its relationship with the for-profit management company, K12 Inc.

12-year-old Colorado Virtual Academy (COVA) is seeking to renew its charter with the Adams 12 Five Star school district. COVA needs to find a school district to sponsor it this year, or else it will face closure this summer.

The Wednesday night meeting of the Adams 12 Five Star Board of Education—which will ultimately decide the fate of COVA’s charter on Feb. 6—was standing room only. More than 200 COVA parents, teachers and students in attendance, many of them wearing blue COVA T-shirts.

In describing the district’s recommendation for severing ties with COVA, Adams 12 Five Star Charter School Liaison Patti Gilmour explained key factors considered in the review such as  legal and intuitional compliance, efficient operations and governance at the school. She said academic performance—and COVA’s lack of progress with its “priority improvement” status—was perhaps the most important component of the review.

“COVA’s student achievement data documents a pattern of multiple years of low growth, low proficiency, failure to close student achievement gaps between student sub groups and unacceptable graduation rates,” she said, referring to COVA’s 22 percent graduation rate. “COVA’s growth trajectory makes it improbable that improvement status can be attained in two years.”

COVA Board members Brian Bissell and Randy DeHoff  asked for a one-year renewal of the school’s charter with Adams 12 Five Star for transitional purposes, explaining that COVA would use that time to continue its academic improvement and seek a new charter authorizer. DeHoff said improvements to school assessments and other programs were promising.

“Can we get out of priority improvement?” asked DeHoff.  “We believe we can.”

After the presentation, the Adams 12 Five Star Board of Education Members engaged in more than 40 minutes of discussion with COVA staff. Questions ranged from specific changes COVA was making to its operations to queries on COVA’s relationship with K12 Inc.

“In our experience, dealing with an at-risk population is very expensive. At what point does K12 Inc. cut you guys loose because it’s not profitable anymore?” asked Member Frederick Schaefer.

“We’re investing a lot in serving them, and we have no interest in turning away from them,” said K12 Inc.’s Mary Gifford, who is serving as interim director of COVA.

President Mark Clark asked about how COVA intends to retain teachers during a period of deep transition.

“With all this turmoil, it looks like eleventh hour iceberg dead ahead, and you’re rearranging the deck furniture,” he said. “What are you going to do about retention of teachers? You have a situation here.”

K12’s Gifford responded:

“I lose sleep about that every night,” she said. “I also worry about the families. We are already getting calls from families that are pursuing other options because of the uncertainty—families who are successful at COVA, who could be well served if the school did transition for another year.”  

Adams 12 Five Star board of education members did not deliberate or discuss the charter renewal at the meeting. That debate is reserved for Feb. 6, when members are expected to decide whether they will sever ties with COVA this June.

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