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Online charter school presents ‘cure’ in effort to avoid closure

Updated August 22, 2017 - 11:08 pm

A lengthy battle over whether an online K-12 charter school will be closed by the state for its low graduation rate may come to an end Wednesday.

A three-day hearing in May by the state Public Charter School Authority on Nevada Connections Academy ended without resolution.

At its regular meeting Wednesday, the board will decide whether the latest “cure” proposed by the school for its 40 percent graduation rate — well below the 60 percent threshold set by the state — is acceptable. If they decide it is, the proceedings will end and the board will monitor the school’s progress.

If the board decides the plan is not acceptable, another meeting will likely be scheduled to determine whether a receiver will take over the school’s operations or whether Nevada Connections will be forced to close in the spring.

The school, part of a national network of online charter schools, has strenuously fought back since a notice of intent for its closing was first issued. Officials argue that using a single data point to measure a school’s success is wrong.

But officials have simultaneously vowed to work with the state to raise the graduation rate.

“Early on with the board of directors, we made the commitment were going to do whatever it took,” said Steve Werlein, the school’s executive director. “That’s the position we’re in.”

The administrative process is the longest since the charter authority was founded in 2011. Other schools that have come under fire for poor performance have typically been able to resolve the issue in a matter of months. Nevada Connections Academy was formally put on notice in September 2016, but discussions about the low graduation rate started even earlier, by March 2016.

The board was created to authorize new charters statewide and to hold failing charters accountable, although some say the board lacks the actual authority to close underperforming schools.

That argument has not been tested, since the board has never attempted to force a charter to close for academic reasons. In most instances, it has instead allowed schools to work with a “receiver” to restructure the school.

But Nevada Connections Academy, which has 3,000 students statewide, doesn’t want that either.

Through legal documents and in hearings, school officials have argued traditional schools failed to serve the high school students who enrolled in the online school, leaving them far behind in credits and needing more time to graduate. To punish Nevada Connections Academy for the failures of those other schools is wrong, they say.

Officials with the authority board declined to comment on the proceedings, but the issue of how to improve or strengthen accountability — particularly for virtual charter schools — is one that’s coming to the forefront, said Nancy Brune, the executive director of the Guinn Center for Policy Priorities.

“There is a sense that the authority needs a greater authority to be able to close them,” Brune said. The center is studying the issue for an upcoming report, which will look at how other states handle the issue as well.

“I’ve heard anecdotally it’s just as difficult in other states. We’re looking to see if that’s the case and, if not, then what are the policies and procedures,” she said.

Contact Meghin Delaney at mdelaney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0281. Follow @MeghinDelaney on Twitter.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article had an outdated graduation rate for the school.

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