- The Washington Times - Monday, December 11, 2006

DENVER — With just one school and fewer than 100 students, the tiny Vilas School District in rural southeastern Colorado was dying, until the desperate superintendent suggested opening an online academy.

Six years later, Vilas is thriving. The district now enrolls more than 4,000 students, only a small percentage of whom actually attend school in town. The rest are enrolled in the district’s publicly chartered online academy, the Hope Co-Op Online Learning Academy, and live scattered across the state.

For struggling school districts like Vilas, the advent of online education comes as a godsend. But critics of the fast-growing movement say Vilas’s success has taken a toll on the state’s other school districts, who lose per-pupil funding every time one of their students leaves to enroll at a Vilas online academy.

Spurred by complaints, the Colorado Office of the Auditor launched an audit of the online-education phenomenon. In an 89-page report released yesterday, the audit criticized the schools for problems ranging from lackluster academic performance to using public funds to support private and religious education.

The audit also said that the Vilas School District is probably violating state law by allowing Hope to open 81 “learning centers” throughout the state. The learning centers offer computer access and tutorial support for students enrolled in the charter, say school officials, but critics say they look like independent schools.

State law prohibits school districts from opening schools in other districts.

Auditors recommended placing the district on accreditation probation. If the district fails to resolve the problems in one year, said auditors, the state should revoke its accreditation.

Vilas Superintendent Joe Shields yesterday called a special school board meeting to grapple with the audit’s findings and recommendations. Before the meeting, he said, he roughed out a six-page corrective-action plan.

“We sure don’t want to do anything to be a detriment. We want to offer the best product we can possibly offer,” he said. “This is all fixable.”

Steven Shapiro, spokesman for the Hope Online academy, acknowledged the criticisms, but said, “A lot of issues raised in the report were issues we were already aware of and already dealing with.”

The audit found that students at the 12 online schools sampled scored below the state average in math and reading. They were three to six times more likely to drop out of school than other students, and also more likely to repeat a grade.

But online proponents argued that online academies tend to attract at-risk students who have struggled with poor grades or behavior problems. Many have either been expelled from or dropped out of public schools.

“Our learning centers are directed at students who drop out of high school or are at risk of dropping out,” said Polly Baca, president of the Latin America Research and Service Agency in Denver. “This is a way to help them stay in school.”

Her organization runs five Hope Online learning centers, chartered by Vilas, in the Denver metro area. She praised the curriculum as “excellent,” saying it would allow students to move straight into college without remedial education.

“Without these schools, our students would be on the streets. We’ve had great success,” said Mrs. Baca, whose centers enroll about 100 students.

The online academies also came under fire for using public funds to boost religious organizations. About half of the Hope centers are based in churches or other religious buildings.

Then there’s the money. Rural school districts receive a larger share of per-pupil funding from the state than their urban counterparts, which means the Vilas-chartered academies are a money-loser, costing the state $6.7 million last year.

Todd Ziebarth, policy analyst for the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, said the report raised a number of “legitimate concerns,” but worried that Democrats in the Colorado legislature would seize on the report to eliminate the schools.

“I hope people will be looking at the report to decide how we can improve online academies and not how we can get rid of them,” he said.

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