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.”

ONLINE SCHOOLS

Low participation and poor attendance could get a student expelled from an online school in new House proposal

BigStock.com

A new House proposal would allow virtual charter schools, which conduct classes almost exclusively online, to remove students showing low participation and poor attendance.

One virtual school authorizer believes this proposal would help solve two problems that virtual school operators believe are especially relevant to their students: high mobility and challenging learning issues.

“What we’re trying to get at is refining their attendance policy,” said Bob Marra, who directs charter school efforts at Ball State University, the group that oversees Hoosier Academies and Indiana Connections Academy. “How do you really measure this in the virtual environment?”

READ: Find more coverage of Indiana online schools here.

Marra’s schools are the two largest online school providers in the state.

House bill 1382, authored by Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, offers no guidance as to what that policy might look like, but does say charter authorizers are responsible for making sure the school adheres to it and doesn’t abuse it.

“If you’re in a classroom and the kids are not engaged and going to sleep, you have the ability to tell that kid to go down to the principal,” Behning said. “If you’re in a virtual classroom, how do you even know the kid’s engaged? Because you’re not in the room with them there’s no way to do it.”

But Rep. Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis, strongly opposes the use of virtual schools, and doesn’t believe — however attendance rules might change — that they can work well for students.

“How do we know the student is ‘engaged’ or ‘attending’? We don’t, and so we’re having a debate about how we can enforce the requirement in a context where I think you can’t enforce the requirement,” DeLaney said.

Teachers in online schools take attendance in their daily or weekly lectures, but they can’t always physically see students.

Virtual schools typically perform poorly on state tests, which some school leaders argue is because they serve a challenging population of students, including those who frequently move and switch schools, come to school far behind grade level and have other learning difficulties that make them more difficult to educate.

They also say they struggle to keep students engaged and can’t easily enforce attendance policies. But online school critics say these problems also occur in many of the state’s struggling urban and rural schools.

The proposal in HB 1382 would allow virtual schools to remove a student as long as “adequate notice” is given to the students and parents, and parents have a chance to explain the absence before the student is removed, if necessary.

Indiana state law is ambiguous on when schools are allowed to expel students, saying kids can be expelled for “student misconduct” or “substantial disobedience.” Neither phrase is explicitly defined, and school districts have interpreted them differently.

A Bloomington high school says in its student code of conduct that expulsion or suspension could result for tardiness or absences. But Indianapolis Public Schools’ code of conduct doesn’t advise removing kids from school for those same offenses.

In general, DeLaney thinks the bill cuts too much slack to charter schools.

He referred to another provision in the bill that would change how the Indiana State Board of Education handles authorizers who want to renew charters for schools that have failed for four years in a row. The bill includes an existing part of state law that requires the board to consider a charter school’s student population before it makes a decision to close or renew the failing school.

There is no similar language in Indiana state law regarding what to consider before closing a traditional public school.

“I don’t know why we are creating a list of excuses for failure,” DeLaney said.

Charter “schools have promised us that this is exactly what they can deal with. We’re saying the very thing they’re supposed to cure is an obstacle to their success.”

Much of the rest of the language in the bill makes clarifications to existing law, essentially ensuring that before an authorizer can renew a charter on a failing school, it must first go to the state board to explain why the school should remain open.

Previously, that timeline was more ambiguous, and some charter authorizers renewed their schools before being asked to consult with the state board, technically violating the law. James Betley, executive director of the Indiana Charter School Board, said this bill rights the contradictory language.

“What the change does is it makes the timeline make sense,” Betley said.

Marra said he’ll be keeping close watch over how the “student engagement” policies play out so students aren’t removed without cause.

“That’s what we want to be able to look at,” Marra said last week at the bill’s first hearing. “How does (an engagement policy) get implemented? We’ll be monitoring.”

Behning said the engagement policy, in particular, still had details that would need to be worked out, but he thought it was a good first step toward trying to address problems virtual schools have reported. The bill passed out of the House Education Committee on Tuesday, and is up for its final hearing in the House this week.

“I’m not saying it’s a perfect fix,” Behning said. “It begins a discussion about how do you make sure that these students are really getting the most out of their educational experience.”

online learning

Hoosier Academy Virtual highlights challenges in third hearing, but board says it still needs more information to make a decision.

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
The Indiana State Board of Education discussed Hoosier Academy Virtual Charter School at its January meeting.

Almost two years and three state hearings later, it’s still not clear what action, if any, Indiana education officials will take regarding the long-struggling Hoosier Academy Virtual Charter School.

What Indiana State Board of Education members do know is that they want even more information.

READ: Find more coverage of Indiana online schools here.

“To move forward … we are going to really have to deep dive into what is the model, what is working well,” said State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick. “There are a lot of big decisions to be made before that time comes.”

The online school received its sixth F from the state last month, after it was asked in 2015 by the Indiana State Board of Education to figure out a plan to improve. Hoosier Academy officials presented their plan in August — but they also came back with the news that they had opened the new Insight School of Indiana, which they said could better serve students who are struggling.

The purpose of the Insight school wasn’t to “let the school avoid accountability,” said Bob Marra, the executive director of the Office of Charter Schools at Ball State University, the group that oversees Hoosier Academies. “It was actually my intention to give more transparency and clarity” around how students were doing, he said.

But board members didn’t necessarily agree with Marra. Steve Yager asked why a new school was even needed when the Hoosier Academy Virtual school could have been altered to provide more support for kids who needed it.

“My concern still remains, and it is that when you start treading new water, you don’t know what’s beneath the surface,” Yager said. “We’ve got to be very, very careful as to the precedent we’re setting.”

Hoosier Academy leaders, as well as leaders of other state virtual schools, have raised the idea that their circumstances should net them some leeway in accountability. Online schools typically face high student turnover, low graduation rates and students coming to school far behind their peers.

In Wednesday’s presentation, Marra pointed to numerous data points that suggest the school would have a much better graduation rate, for example, if students who were credit deficient or those who had left the school but were still counted in the cohort, weren’t counted.

Cynthia Roach, director of testing and accountability for the state board, said there have been conversations about other accountability models that might better fit schools like Damar Charter Academy, which specifically serves students with some of the most severe learning and physical disabilities, or residential treatment facilities that also educate kids, but those are ongoing.

Otherwise, Roach said, the state’s new A-F model should essentially work for everyone else. She didn’t think the difficulties Hoosier Academy says it’s facing qualify them for an A-F break. Critics of alternate accountability for virtual schools say traditional schools, particularly urban schools, see many of the same challenges.

“With the way we’ve got the model currently set up, even if (schools) are not passing (ISTEP), they should be growing those kids,” Roach said. “I have no real issue holding them to the same standards.”

Indiana only has one grading system. Even if schools get designated as alternative schools and have a mission to serve specific groups of kids, they are either counted along with another district school or get a grade of their own.

Insight School of Indiana won’t test students until this year, which means results and a letter grade won’t be available for almost a year. At Hoosier Virtual, even test score growth data is low, at what could be considered a D, while test passing rates could be considered an F.

Opening up separate schools to give extra services is something K12, the school’s management company, has done in other states, including Arizona and Ohio, said John Marske, president of Hoosier Academies’ board of directors.

“Rather than recreate the wheel, we’re using a model that is working in other states,” Marske said.

But it’s not clear it’s even working in those states.

In Arizona, the Insight Academy is considered an “alternative school” by the state, which means it serves an at-risk population, including students who are behind, those with disruptive behavior and those in the juvenile justice system.

Even so, the school received a C grade for 2014, the most recent data available from the Arizona Department of Education. Arizona Virtual Academy got a B in 2014. The Ohio Insight Academy doesn’t have an overall grade, but for all the “component” grades, in areas such as achievement, test score growth and graduation rate, the school received Fs. Ohio Virtual Academy received a D, F and F in those areas.

Hoosier Academy Virtual is set to come back to the board in this spring. Marra said there won’t be any new test scores yet, but they’ll continue discussion and go over more information. McCormick, like Yager, said she worries that the board’s process dealing with Hoosier Academies could set a precedent, and she doesn’t want other schools to think they’re getting special treatment.

“It’s going to be a difficult decision because obviously this is not an overnight issue — we don’t want to put students in a bad situation,” McCormick said. Virtual charter schools are “not traditional public schools, but they are public schools, so we do need to watch that. I think that’s our responsibility as a department, and I think that’s our responsibility as a state board of education.”