online and off track

The broken promise of Indiana’s online schools

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
A Hoosier Virtual teacher keeps track of answers during a math review game.

One in a Chalkbeat series about virtual schools.

When Indiana education officials released school A-F grades this week, only three schools had received F grades for six years in a row.

Two were traditional public schools in Gary and Marion County, and the other was Hoosier Academy Virtual Charter school, which does all its teaching and learning online. For the traditional public schools, the sixth straight F marks the first time the state can potentially close the school.

READ: Find more coverage of Indiana online schools here.

But for charter schools, the limit is set at four, a milestone Hoosier Virtual surpassed almost two years ago. Despite its poor performance, the state has not taken steps to close the school or restrict state funding to its charter authorizer, Ball State University.

Hoosier Virtual was told in March 2015 to figure out a plan to improve. But while school officials did that, they came back to the board in August of this year with something unexpected: Hoosier Virtual had opened a new school, transferring 663 of its students there.

“It’s stunning, frankly, to see what Ball State (is doing) in Indiana,” said Todd Ziebarth, senior vice president for state advocacy and support for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a group that typically advocates for charter school expansion. “To see them approve a new charter … and let the school off the hook, or at least that’s what it appears … there’s just a lot of questions that come up.”

Letting Hoosier Academies open another school sends the message that state rules can be ignored, Ziebarth said.

But Byron Ernest, head of Hoosier Academies’ three schools and also a state board member as of June of last year, said opening the new school, called Insight School of Indiana, was a way for the network to focus on students who needed more help than could be offered in a typical online classroom.

“That was the right thing to do for our students, and so that was the reasoning behind that,” Ernest said. He recused himself from the most recent state board hearing when Hoosier Academy was on the agenda.

Hoosier Academies is not alone in its struggle to improve its schools. Every online school in the state that tested students in 2016 — including four charter schools  — received an F grade: Hoosier Academy Virtual, Hoosier Academy-Indianapolis, Insight School of Indiana, Indiana Connections Academy, Indiana Virtual School and Wayne Township’s virtual high school.

Indiana tracks with the national trend. Virtual charter schools perform far below peers in traditional brick-and-mortar schools on state tests, but many states have so far been loathe to take dramatic steps to improve them.

“When we see these results in traditional public schools, we are outraged,” Ziebarth said. “And we should be equally outraged when we see them in a (virtual) public school.”

Since their start in 2009, Indiana’s online schools have grown tremendously, in some cases going from a couple hundred students to a few thousand. Currently, 11,442 Indiana students are enrolled in virtual schools, about 1 percent of all Indiana students. There are no specific restrictions on growth, regardless of performance.

Virtual charter schools were meant to help nontraditional students maintain consistent education. That could include Olympic athletes who train for hours each day, students with chronic health problems or long-term illness who are often absent, kids with social anxiety or other disabilities or families where parents want to be more involved with day-to-day schooling but can’t take on the full responsibility of homeschooling.

“My vision when I started this was (kids) could learn anywhere, any time, on their agenda, at their pace,” said Ron Brumbarger, who helped found Hoosier Academies and later joined its board. He also homeschooled his own children. “(There is a fallacy) that the bricks (of a school building) have intelligence around them.”

Brumbarger said he wanted to give families maximum control over their child’s education to allow kids to be curious and learn at their own speed, in their own way. If they wanted to take field trips and visit the original 13 colonies rather than read a textbook in a classroom to study history, why not let them?

It’s true that some nontraditional students thrive in an online school environment where they can control where, when and how they learn. But for the majority of the Indiana students in online schools, the flexibility and lack of teacher oversight aren’t working. Virtual schools see high rates of student turnover from year to year. At Hoosier Academies, for example, more than half of students turn over each year.

Online schools can attract students who tend to be more difficult to educate and more likely to move around. Indiana virtual school principals said parents and students can look at online learning as a last chance when other types of schooling haven’t worked. Some of these children might have behavior problems or other issues in traditional schools.

“Because we get students where some are like, this is a last-ditch effort for them, it’s really, really hard sometimes to make progress with those kids who just stay for a little while,” said Melissa Brown, principal at Connections Academy. “We believe that if we can keep kids, we can really help them.”

But as Rep. Bob Behning, chairman of the House Education Committee and author of the original virtual schools law, said, it’s not just virtual charter schools that face problems of high mobility. Although the legislature has yet to take action, Behning said he’s heard about systems in other states, such as Ohio, where mobility is taken into consideration for all schools, and the newest students might be left out of the A-F rankings so schools aren’t dinged for a problem they didn’t create.

Online schoolwork, much more self-directed and self-paced than in a school building, demands more discipline from the students and their parents. In many of the state’s virtual charters, students are required to log between 30 and 40 hours a week of schoolwork, but that usually doesn’t have to happen face-to-face with a teacher, and in grades with older students, parents can become less involved.

Brooke Butts, a senior from North Liberty getting ready to graduate next year from Indiana Connections Academy, has been in and out of virtual schools since she was in seventh grade.

“It’s really hard to stay motivated and just sit down and make sure you do your work. You can get behind so fast — trust me I know,” Butts said.

“You can definitely not blame anything on the teachers because if you don’t ask (for help), it’s on you. If you don’t do the work, it’s on you. If you are not responsible, you probably should not do virtual school.”

Yet some virtual school students are not motivated to learn on their own, and not all of them have parents who can be around to help manage or oversee their school day. Some kids who enter an online school and are multiple grade levels behind might need even more attention from a teacher. That’s not impossible, but it is more challenging when lessons aren’t mandatory and students control their own pace.

Even though teachers host live online lessons, where they’ll lecture a group of students, demonstrate math problems or lead a reading or writing exercise, students are typically not required to attend. The teachers who spoke with Chalkbeat said they tried to communicate regularly with kids and parents through email, phone and internet messaging.

“If they don’t come, I keep an eye on their attendance,” said Kris Phillips, a teacher at Hoosier Virtual. “If they miss three in a row, then I’m right on them.”

If those kids already lack a reliable support system at home, going to an online school can be like not attending school at all. But for some kids, such as those with long-term medical problems, social anxiety issues or other special learning needs, the flexibility found in virtual schools is a positive.

Jamie Leffel was one of the early online school adopters, enrolling her sons at a hybrid Hoosier Academies campus in Muncie that has since closed. Now, they’re sixth- and eighth-graders.

“We started in a traditional brick-and-mortar school and just decided there were several reasons” to switch to virtual school, Leffel, who lives in Madison County, said.

Her older three children did well in traditional schools, but the younger boys didn’t quite fit. Leffel wanted to make sure there was an emphasis on curiosity, self-motivation and going to college — things she didn’t think they got from their previous school.

“(Virtual school) is a good blend, I think, of the way we learn, how we can learn and, you know, where this world is headed,” Leffel said.

In Indiana, the poor performance hasn’t gone completely unnoticed. Ernest, the head of all Hoosier Academies schools, said he’s had conversations with lawmakers about whether the state’s A-F system should be adjusted to deal with the challenges virtual schools face — such as high turnover — something other virtual school principals said they’d favor.

Another idea would be to give a bonus or extra support to schools that can actually help students graduate who don’t have enough credits, or consider models that give schools money for the courses students complete rather than how many enroll. Currently, virtual charter schools receive 90 percent of state tuition support, a percentage that’s been inching up since the pilot program was established.

“We want to be as reflective as possible as to what the true performance of the school is,” Behning said. “I’m open to looking at options, but I think my primary focus is always what’s best for kids, not what’s best for institutions. I don’t want to whitewash the problem — if there’s a problem there, then we need to be addressing it.”

In January, Ernest said state board members will again review what has been going on at Hoosier Virtual, taking into account their recent ISTEP passing rates and F grade. Then in April, the board is scheduled to come back and make a decision on how to move forward with the school.

But even by this spring, it won’t be clear how the Insight school has performed or how transferring students has affected Hoosier Virtual  — Indiana schools will still be in the process of taking ISTEP, and 2017 test scores or state grades won’t be available.

But Gordon Hendry, a state board member, said at this point he’s only looking as far ahead as the January hearing. There’s plenty left for the board to discuss, he said, including details about the Insight school and what’s best for the parents and students who attend both schools. He said the board was right to delay action in August and wait until they feel they’ve gotten enough information to make an appropriate decision.

“I never felt locked into the April deadline,” Hendry said. “I’m focused primarily on getting the update in January … we’re dealing with these very serious issues, and the on-the-ground assessment from the professionals at the Department of Education is critical. As I heard last fall, the (reports) were positive in terms of the changes that have been made.”

Decision time

Indiana officials opt to punish Hoosier Academy Virtual and let it stay open. They told the long-failing school to do better. Again.

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
The Indiana State Board of Education discussed Hoosier Academy Virtual Charter School at its meeting today, as well as at the beginning of the year (pictured).

After two years of debate, Hoosier Virtual Academy Charter School escaped closure by Indiana education officials on Wednesday but was penalized with a reduction in fees to authorizer Ball State University and a cap on enrollment.

Except for siblings of current students, the Indiana State Board of Education voted to freeze the school’s enrollment immediately. The board also approved a reduction in the fee that Ball State can accept, cutting it from 3 percent to 1 percent of Hoosier Academy’s state funding. The school is operated by for-profit K12 Inc.

The school — among the largest online providers in Indiana — has dealt with years of low test scores and F grades from the state, which triggered its first state board hearing in March of 2015. This decision has been a long time coming — a fact that didn’t escape state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick, who said action needed to happen much earlier. She also said the state should reconsider requirements for how involved authorizers need to be.

“I think it’s unfortunate we’re at this point where we’re having to make this type of decision,” McCormick said. “The authorizer should have gotten aggressive very early and made a decision one way or the other so the state board wouldn’t have been in this situation.”

Read: The broken promise of online schools

Wednesday marked the fourth board appearance in two years for the school. Over that time, the school has continued to receive F grades from the state, admit students and pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to Ball State to authorize it.

The tone of the discussion overall was far more tense and contentious than prior hearings. State board members challenged Hoosier Academy administrators, as well as representatives from K12 and Ball State, to justify why improvement was taking so long and why conversations about improvement seemed to be in such early stages.

Last year, the university collected about $450,000 for overseeing Hoosier Academy, an amount determined by school enrollment. According to the most recent information available, 2,850 students across Indiana currently attend Hoosier Academy Virtual, down from the 3,300 reported by the state earlier this year. The network as a whole, which includes two other virtual and hybrid schools, enrolls about 1,000 additional kids.

One of the biggest concerns among board members was that the school’s curriculum, furnished primarily by K12, is not fully aligned to Indiana’s academic standards. Stuart Udell, CEO of K12 Inc., said Indiana’s changing state academic standards has made it difficult to ensure everything matches up correctly.

“We’ve had a lot of change nationally,” Udell said. “We’ve been working judiciously since we’ve been here on filling in the gaps.”

Yet Cari Whicker and other board members, including McCormick, pointed out that Indiana teachers at every school have been expected to adjust to the many changes in standards and state tests.

“I don’t have the luxury of saying there’s been a lot of change and my grades are not my grades,” said Whicker, a sixth-grade public school teacher in Huntington. “Every teacher in the state of Indiana had to adapt.”

Virtual school leaders argue their poor performance is because they serve a challenging population of students, including those who frequently switch schools, and come to school far behind grade level. In fact, every online school in the state that tested students in 2016 received an F grade, and most have fewer students passing ISTEP than their traditional counterparts.

K12 officials said a new Indiana law passed this year that would allow virtual charter schools to expel students for low participation would make a difference. Currently, virtual schools can’t force students to attend. But it’s hard to see how that allows new flexibility. According to WFYI Public Media, Hoosier Virtual expelled more than 800 students in the past three years.

Although many parents and students traveled to the meeting in Evansville to speak passionately about their positive experiences with the school, Board member Gordon Hendry said it was important to note that that’s not the case for most Hoosier Academy students.

“There’s a whole heck of a lot of students where it’s not working, and the state is spending a ton of money on failure,” Hendry said. “It is on Ball State, but it’s also on K12. They are running the school.”

Ball State University is required to come back to the board next June to ask about renewing the school’s charter. Board members agreed they wanted to see major changes at that point.

“A year from now if there isn’t dramatic change, I’m going to have a pretty different position,” Hendry said.

 

online education

Indiana officials will try for the fourth time to to address deep-seated issues at one long-struggling virtual school

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
A Hoosier Virtual teacher keeps track of answers during a math review game.

After more than two years, several state hearings and six F-grades, Indiana officials are expected to decide on the fate of one of the state’s largest online schools.

On Wednesday, the Indiana State Board of Education is set to take up the case of Hoosier Academy Virtual Charter School. The school has dealt with years of low test scores and poor letter grades, which triggered its first state board hearing in March of 2015.

Virtual school leaders argue the poor performance is because they serve a challenging population of students, including those who frequently switch schools, and come to school far behind grade level. In fact, every online school in the state that tested students in 2016 received an F grade, and most have fewer students passing ISTEP than their traditional counterparts.

Read: The broken promise of online schools

This week marks the fourth board appearance for the school, managed by the for-profit online education provider K12 Inc. Here are some possible routes the board could take when it meets Wednesday in Evansville:

The board could close the school at the end of this year.

Charter school authorizers have ordered schools to close before based on poor test scores, but this is the first time the state board would take such a step. Other traditional charters that had hearings for repeated F-grades at the same time as Hoosier Academy have since boosted their grades and no longer require the state to get involved.

In 2016, 18.5 percent of Hoosier Academy students passed both ISTEP English and math exams, compared to a state average of 51.6 percent. The school’s graduation rate has been fairly flat for the past several years. In 2016, 22.7 percent of students graduated, compared to 89.1 percent statewide.

One concern from board members has been that closing the school could leave thousands of students without a similar school. While there are other virtual education providers in the state, those school leaders have said taking on hundreds more students in a short time would be difficult, if not impossible, to sustain.

The board could reduce the fee Ball State University collects for overseeing the school and bar the it from accepting new students, but let it remain open.

Last year, the university collected about $450,000 for overseeing Hoosier Academy, one of several charter schools it is responsible for. That fee is 3 percent of what the school receives from the state, which is determined by school enrollment. About 3,300 students across Indiana attend Hoosier Academy Virtual, and the network as a whole, which includes two other virtual and hybrid schools, enrolls about 900 additional kids.

Ball State officials are scheduled to present a detailed plan for how they plan to work with the school to improve. The plan includes efforts to make sure K12 Inc.’s curriculum is aligned with state learning standards and to develop a team of staff members to ensure students are engaged with their classes and parents have the knowledge and support they need to help their children be successful.

The board could find a new authorizer for Hoosier Virtual.

If the state board decides Ball State has not adequately worked to oversee the school, it can vote to switch the school’s authorizer and begin the process to find a replacement.

Or it could further delay the decision, as it has in the past.

The most recent hearing for Hoosier Academy Virtual, headed by state board member Byron Ernest, was in January. At that meeting, the board tabled a vote on consequences for the school, citing a need for more information.

According to a memo from state board staff, Hoosier Academy says it meets criteria outlined by a recently modified state charter school law that should allow it to stay open.

State law says that if a school serves kids with particular challenges, such as drug addiction or a history with the juvenile justice system, they can be given special consideration from the board. Hoosier Academy officials have said their school serves a number of students who could fall under this umbrella, including ones who have had problems with bullying, health issues or need flexibility to accommodate athletic training or frequent family moves.

Similarly, the board can also consider mobility rates, or how frequently students transfer in and out of the school. The mobility rate at the school has been high for nearly all of its existence. Last year, almost two-thirds of students had been enrolled for less than one year.

You can read more of Chalkbeat’s reporting on Indiana online schools here.