Specifically, the audit noted:

Low test scores. In 2006, only 16 percent of Vilas Online students scored at or above grade level in math on the Colorado Student Assessment Program, or CSAP. At Hope Academy, the figure was a mere 11 percent. Scores were only marginally better in other areas. In fact, in grades six-10, Vilas Online students did not come close to making the average statewide test scores in any subject — reading, science, writing or math.

A lack of licensed and highly qualified teachers. Hope Academy had three or sometimes four licensed teachers in 2005-2006, overseeing 165 mentors who acted as tutors and proctors for some 1,500 elementary and high school students at any one time.

Public funding that supported private and religious education. Two of the five learning centers auditors visited were located in private religious schools. “The Colorado Constitution prohibits a school district from using public funds to support any school controlled by a church or sectarian denomination,” the report said.

Even before the auditor’s report, ugly rumors had begun blowing across the prairie. Vilas was rolling in dough, people said; Vilas shuttled kids around in limousines; Vilas had built a stadium in back of its tiny schoolhouse. These accusations were silly, but the charges leveled by the auditor’s report were not.

 

The people of Baca County generally present a country openness. But because of the recent negative publicity, those connected with the Vilas school district are still licking their wounds.

Joe Shields, a slight man who has spent most of his educational life teaching industrial arts in schools and prisons, is the superintendent of both the Vilas brick-and-mortar and online schools. “I’m just wondering if that gun pointed at me is cocked and loaded,” he says as I sit across the desk from him.

Still, he cheerfully agrees to show me around the Vilas brick-and-mortar school.

If Vilas is getting rich from its online ventures, it doesn’t show. Built in 1929, the physical school is worn, with low ceilings and painted concrete beams. The federal Works Progress Administration built the “new” addition, as the school calls it, in 1936. The whole K-12 school has only 99 students, half of whom are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

The kindergarten classroom is suffering a three-bucket leak due to an unusually heavy snowfall. It houses just three students. Teacher Alan Packard, a burly former football player, watches his squealing charges and declares, “I’ve got the best job in the district.”

Everybody seems to know one another. “People live and breathe this place. It’s like one big family,” Shields says. He and his wife, who works in the school office, live on campus. Modular homes line the south edge of the school grounds. “I’ve got to give housing to attract teachers,” Shields said.

Across a muddy parking lot from the old school is a new metal building. It’s also a school, but there are no kids inside. It’s spacious, carpeted and clean, with only a handful of offices, one of which is the computer center that handles all the computers given to online students. Its small mainframe computer serves as the storage and service center for all of Vilas’s online students and their teachers.

Like others in the Vilas online community, Shields clearly sees himself as an educator, not a parasite preying on the weak spots of other districts. “This is about kids, not money,” he says. “You run your district well, and the truth is we’ll get very few of your kids.”

Shields acknowledges that most of Vilas’ online students are underperformers, but says he would like the world to “judge us on the merits of the student and his educational development, not his test scores.” It’s an understandable position to take; Vilas Online’s test scores are, in fact, abysmal. Shields doesn’t deny the problem but wants more time to work out the kinks and repair any faults.

Others, however, feel the school has already been given too much leeway.

In his December 2006 report, the state auditor took Colorado Department of Education Commissioner William Moloney to task for not disciplining Vilas RE-5. For three years, Vilas had been on an accreditation “watch list” due to the performance of its online schools. Only after the outcry caused by the audit did the education department put Vilas RE-5 on probation, an action that could eventually lead to dissolving the school district.

Moloney announced his resignation in February, effective in June, citing “unspecified personal and professional reasons,” one of which involved the election of new Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter, according to the Denver Post. Though his supporters consider him an advocate for education reform, Moloney had been criticized for passivity; last year, the Colorado Association of School Executives even issued a report calling for stronger education leadership.

In three interviews conducted just before his resignation announcement, Moloney strongly defended his decision to wait so long before sanctioning Vilas RE-5.

“Yes, we have to ensure quality control, but it’s not a cookbook situation,” Moloney said. “Our purpose is not to stigmatize rural districts. They’re in crisis. They are strapped for cash. You’re not going to get some crackerjack AP (advanced placement) teacher going out to places like Vilas. Somehow we have to make them viable.”

Shields agrees, saying most people are unaware of the kind of students with which Vilas works. “We sign up juniors who can’t read at an eighth-grade level,” he says. “How did this kid get to be a junior? He’s really a freshman. He requires intensive intervention.”

Which brings up the prickly subject of academic dumping. Thousands of academically struggling urban students have transferred into Vilas’s online world. Some say this has happened with the blessing and encouragement of city school districts. Lisa Schiff, communications director for Denver Public Schools, says, “We don’t believe that is happening in this district.” School officials in Trinidad and Pueblo also denied passing off their bad students in this way.

But that doesn’t jive with the experience of Shields and Thompson. They say complaints about the low test scores of their online students miss the point. “Look,” Thompson says, “if we take a kid who’s scoring 20 percent on the CSAP and in one year’s time double his score to 40 percent, yes, we’re still below the statewide average. But we’ve doubled his score. Isn’t that better? That person can still graduate and pay taxes and be a productive member of our society.

“That person can still work at McDonalds.”

Still, Vilas RE-5 students are clearly not doing well by standard measures. In grades seven through 10, most Vilas Online CSAP reading, writing, and math scores declined from 2003 to 2005-2006. Scores in eighth-grade reading, for example, fell from 37 percent of the class scoring above proficient level in 2003 to 28 percent in 2006.

Meanwhile, the statewide average for eighth grade reading in 2006 was 66 percent above the proficiency level.