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Colorado Students Continue To Flock To Online Charters, Despite Controversies

Lauren Coolman

Colorado parents are leaving traditional school districts at a higher rate in the last five years. Their destination? Virtual schools. According to a report by the non-profit think tank A+ Colorado, charter schools -- both online and brick-and-mortar -- saw booms in enrollment that far outpaced growth at traditional districts between 2011 and 2015. Online charters alone grew by 21 percent in the last five years.

The Byers 32J school district serves 3,019 students -- just a small share of whom report to a classroom every day. While the tiny district comprises a mere two brick-and-mortar schools, it authorizes four online charter schools. And those charters are responsible for the bulk of a whopping 514.4 percent enrollment spike in the last five years, according to the report. Most of that growth has occurred in the four online charters the district authorizes.

Those online charters -- Colorado Digital Academy, Colorado Virtual Academy, Elevate Academy and Great Plains Academy -- are considered “multi-district,” meaning any student in Colorado may enroll.

The concept of an online charter is still relatively new, even though the Colorado Department of Education has overseen the creation of 35 online charters in the state. The oldest online charter in Byers’ portfolio has been around since 2000. As with most new ideas, there have been rocky patches. For example, Colorado Virtual Academy (taken over by Byers in 2014; previously authorized by Adams 12 Five Star school district) settled a class action lawsuit in 2013. The suit, brought by shareholders, alleged that K12 Inc -- the company that managed COVA -- aggressively recruited kids ill-suited for online education, and then went on to manipulate enrollment data to garner the greatest possible state funding.

Another online charter -- Guided Online Academic Learning Academy, or GOAL -- was the subject of similar claims. Last fall, Education Week published an investigation into GOAL which found that between 15 and 20 percent of their students drop out every year. To put those numbers into context, only 2.3 percent of students dropped out of Colorado’s public schools during the 2015-2016 school year, according to state data.

That’s what makes the A+ Colorado’s findings remarkable: Students are still enrolling at a quick clip despite the bad press surrounding two of the state’s largest online charter schools. And it isn’t just bad press.The 2016 state performance report for COVA found that the school fell far below academic achievement benchmarks. When it came to students who were eligible for free or reduced lunch, English language learners and minorities, those numbers fell even further. That’s why the school is on a state-coordinated improvement plan.

But then, so are all of Byers’ other online charters.Elevate Academy was cited for a lack of a “reliable comprehensive organizational structure.” Students at Colorado Digital Academy were found to be scoring “slightly below state average” in English and Math. Officials at Great Plains Academy conceded that students were not “a captive audience” and that many students have expressed “confusion” and “dissatisfaction” with the school’s methods.

However, this rapid growth doesn’t necessarily mean parents are leaving traditional schools in droves. The state’s largest school district -- Denver Public Schools -- educates nearly 100,000 students in the Denver Metro Area. Out of nearly 200 schools, DPS has 57 charter schools and another 40 “innovation schools” under its umbrella. Innovation schools are granted certain waivers to experiment with charter-like approaches.That means almost half of DPS’ schools are non-traditional.

When looking at brick and mortar charter programs, Charter School Institute saw significant growth compared to traditional districts. CSI is the state’s only charter authorizer not part of a traditional school district. Its portfolio comprises 39 schools, including Colorado Early Colleges and Global Village Academy. According to the A+ Colorado report, CSI saw a 43.5 percent growth in enrollment between 2011 and 2015. As of the 2016-2017 school year, CSI schools educate 16,427 of the state’s students.

Editor's note: This piece has been updated to correct an earlier error that linked Great Plains Academy's improvement plan to Elevate Academy's. Language was also changed to clarify that it was school officials, not state officials, who detailed problems at Great Plains Academy. The first paragraph has also been corrected to reflect online charter enrollment growth across the state, rather than just the Byers school district. 

Ann Marie Awad's journalistic career has seen her zigzag around the United States, finally landing on Colorado. Before she trekked to this neck of the woods, she was a reporter and Morning Edition host for WRKF in Baton Rouge, Louisiana's capitol. In a former life, she was a reporter in New York City. Originally, she's from Buffalo, so she'll be the judge of whether or not your chicken wings are up to snuff, thank you very much.
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