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.

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.