Series

Why online learning works for these Indiana kids

PHOTO: Courtesy of Indiana Connections Academy
A student at Indiana Connections Academy completes schoolwork.

One in a Chalkbeat series about virtual schools.

Online schools offer opportunities that can be life-changing for children who need flexible learning, even though the schools have broadly demonstrated a poor track record in Indiana so far.

Indiana Connections Academy, along with every online school in the state that tested students in 2016, received an F grade from the state last month.

But the Neiers and Taylors, who have been with Indiana Connections Academy since it opened in 2010, are happy with their choice. They said the self-paced nature of virtual learning, the lack of social distractions and the ability to learn anytime, anywhere, have given their kids the environment they need to be successful.

The families — who are from Franklin and related — learned about virtual schooling when Stephanie Neier, a mother of five, enrolled her kids after hearing rave reviews of Connections Academy from a friend. Her oldest son has autism, and traditional high school wasn’t working for him, she said.

“I don’t mind the public education curriculum,” Neier said. “It was more about meeting each of my individual kids where they are in their education and what they need.”

Other children in the families struggle with learning disabilities or chronic health issues and appreciate the freedom to learn when and where they want

Students from Connections Academy, the second largest online school provider in Indiana with 4,032 students, talked with Chalkbeat about why virtual school works for them.

Excerpts from interviews have been edited for length and clarity. Editor’s notes are in italics.

 

How online school compares to traditional school

Demetri Taylor, 11th grade: The comparison to brick-and-mortar school is the attention you receive. At a brick-and-mortar school, teachers have a whole class to deal with at one time. Here, you can easily contact a teacher and they can do one-on-ones with you so you can get the help you need.

(Online schools generally serve more students in a virtual “classroom,” but the software they use allows students to speak privately with teachers during lectures, as well as contact them easily outside formal class time.)

READ: Find more coverage of Indiana online schools here.

The time is also a great thing at Connections. I take one class at Franklin High School, so that allows me to play sports — I take tennis. I have several friends that are always trying to get caught up because you only have so much time (during the traditional school day) to get caught up. In a virtual setting, you don’t have that problem because your workspace is very flexible. So if you have an internship, you can work around that.

Wyatt Taylor, 11th grade: Here, you can really take it step by step and just learn at your own pace. What I like about the school is that what effort you put into the school is the effort that’s going to come back at you.

Tori Taylor, ninth grade: There aren’t social cliques in my school. There isn’t a specific group you have to belong to — we’re just all one big group. You don’t have the “populars” the “geeks” the “nerds” or whatever. You have just one group, and kids socialize with whoever they want.

What they like best about virtual school

Tori: Virtual school is definitely easier on me because I’m dyslexic, and I have ADD. When I was in (traditional) public school, I couldn’t focus on anything, and I didn’t get any help with my dyslexia.

(Tori said she didn’t receive special education services in public school, and now that she’s at Connections Academy, she has a learning plan that address her disabilities and receives extra tutoring for her dyslexia.)

There’s not as many distractions — you’re at home, and you know the people you are working with, and you know what they’re going to do. Even if you get behind, you have opportunities throughout the year to catch up. Now my dyslexia is way better. I can actually read a book now.

Abigail Taylor, seventh grade: Math is not really my strongest subject, and before I came to this school, I just about flunked third grade. This school has helped me get my math better, and my knowledge in math is actually probably higher than it’s ever been.

Ashleigh Neier, 10th grade: We have field trips that we go on that the school sponsors. Or, my mom will put something up on a Facebook page and a group of us will get together and we’ll all go out for lunch one week, or we’ll go to someone’s house and play games one night. We build these friendships through those things and field trips.

What they’d change about online school

Wyatt: I just recently got into student council, and one thing I’m trying to do right now is get more interaction between students outside of the live lessons. Maybe a live lesson for kids to hang out and chat. Definitely I would try and get more social activity between each of the students.

Tori: Back when I first started virtual school, it was rough, and I wanted to go back just because the socialization wasn’t the same. After I got through that, it was nice because then we were in fifth grade and we went on a ton of field trips. Once I realized you could actually socialize with people, I wouldn’t change a thing.

(Virtual schools can not only have their own student government, but they also have clubs and other social and academic activities that are unique to their schools and help them connect with other kids and families in their communities.)

What they want to do when they grow up:

Wyatt: I’m pretty sure I’m going to go into the Air Force. I feel like this is a really good school — it gives you the time to prepare to the college you really want to go to.

Demetri: I’m thinking of going to IUPUI and becoming an American Sign Language interpreter, and after that hopefully work for (Luna Language Services). My friend’s mom works up there, and I job shadowed up there. (IUPUI is the merged campus of Indiana University and Purdue University in Indianapolis.)

Ashleigh: I want to also go to IUPUI and do ASL interpreting and get a pediatrics physical therapy degree and work with hippotherapy — therapy on a horse (for kids with special needs). My brother did hippotherapy, and I went and watched a couple sessions. I love working with special needs kids — that’s one of my passions, and I love horses, and so it’s kind of like the best of both worlds.

Tori: All I do is listen to music, (so I’m considering studying) music. I also love horses, and I’ve looked into horse training. I want to go to IUPUI to get my veterinary degree.

Abigail: I at least want to try to become a singer … or a crime investigator because investigating crimes just has always inspired me.

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.”