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 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.”

Series

Educators step up to the challenges facing Indiana’s underachieving online schools

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Kindergarten teacher Alyssa Davis leads a reading lesson at Hoosier Academy's building in Marion County.

Last in a Chalkbeat series about virtual schools.

Teacher Kris Phillips sat in her sunny office on a recent fall afternoon, preparing to start a math lesson for her middle-schoolers who needed extra help with fractions.

READ: Find more coverage of Indiana online schools here.

But unlike most teachers, she first carefully donned a headset and microphone.

That’s because Phillips’ classroom isn’t surrounded by the brick walls of a school building. Rather, she teaches within the confines of a computer screen, serving students who could be listening to her from every corner of the state.

Phillips is in her third year of teaching at Hoosier Academies, the largest virtual charter network in Indiana that serves about 4,200 kids across three schools. She’s the kind of teacher who’s willing to do just about anything to engage her students — even if that means getting a little goofy.

The former Avon educator knows it can be difficult to get kids, particularly those who struggle academically or who lack support at home, to connect with her and her instruction via computer, so a sense of humor and a bit of entertainment can go a long way.

The goal of the day’s lesson was simple: Phillips wanted to shore up her students’ skills in multiplying and reducing fractions, and she used a popular computer game called Minecraft and a dating game that included a character created by one of the girls in the class: A larger-than-life sheep named “Sheep, O Honorable Sheep.”

“I try to tap into their interest and make it fun or exciting,” Phillips said. “And if I have to be goofy in the process, I don’t care.”

The game and props proved fairly effective. Responses from her students, who she could hear through her headphones, flew up quickly on the screen in a small chat box as she asked them how to multiply pairs of numbers or reduce fractions. The set-up resembled a slightly complex Powerpoint presentation, with the lesson housed in a larger central screen surrounded by other boxes containing tools, chat rooms and buttons linking her to individual students’ workspaces.

When she later split students into individual spaces so they could complete extra problems and interact with her one-on-one, there was none of the transition chatter you’d commonly hear in a traditional classroom, so things moved more quickly. She moved through the spaces like you’d switch tabs in an internet browser. A single click took her from the main lesson presentation to other screens where she could see their individual work.

Her schedule can fluctuate from week to week, but when she’s not teaching one of her three or four live lessons a day, she’s analyzing student test data, meeting with parents or students or creating progress reports.

Phillips and other educators who spoke to Chalkbeat about their experiences teaching in online schools were adamant that this setting — where the four walls of a classroom are replaced by online chats, lots of emails and video screens — was best not just for their students, but for them as teachers.

Although as a whole, online schools across the state have failed to demonstrate widespread academic achievement, they remain a choice that a growing number of Indiana students and students across the country are turning to.

Teachers and educators in online schools shared why they chose virtual schools, the challenges they can face educating students and the success stories that keep them going.

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

What makes their jobs different from teachers in traditional schools?

Kris Phillips, middle school math teacher at Hoosier Academy: It’s really a lot of parallel between the brick-and-mortar and virtual — it’s just we’re doing it on a different platform.

Ann Semon, sixth grade teacher at Hoosier Academy: At traditional schools, I spent my whole time managing behavior and kids getting in fights. I wanted to give them everything, but I felt like I couldn’t, whether it’s because there weren’t enough resources for someone to help me in my classroom or kids speaking multiple languages and I couldn’t help. I just felt like I couldn’t be successful.

Alyssa Davis, kindergarten teacher at Hoosier Academy: The caseload is certainly larger in our setting, but the beauty of it is I can pull these small groups while the rest of their class is working at home with their learning coach. Whereas in a brick-and-mortar school, the classroom management is hard.

This is nice because they are there with a learning coach doing lessons throughout the day, and I am there for lessons.

(Students in virtual schools have designated learning coaches, who can be parents, guardians or other engaged adults, who help them manage their classwork and communicate with teachers. The coaches are especially necessary in younger grades and usually will become less engaged day-to-day as students get older and can be more responsible for themselves. Indiana’s virtual school classes can enroll upwards of 50 students at a time.

But for most 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.)

What they like best about teaching in a virtual school

Corrie Barnett, middle school math teacher at Hoosier Academy: I loved this year because of the one-on-one attention. Each of my 50 students, I get to see them every day. Something we required for students this year was live class (lessons) for the first time. It’s just been amazing to see the growth. It’s just made us feel a lot more tied into (students’) families.

(Live lessons — similar to Phillips’ fraction-themed dating game lesson above — are online versions of a typical class lecture, where teachers present information to students and can work with them in groups or individually on the material. While teachers at Hoosier Academy have offered live lessons in the past, Barnett explained that students now are expected to attend.)

Phillips: One of the things I love about virtual teaching is that you don’t have to worry about the whole classroom management aspect of it. I feel like I can put my energy into teaching, and I can really focus on them learning. I don’t have to worry so much about the transition through the hallways, and the disruptions in the classroom and the things like that that you would normally.

What they find challenging about teaching in a virtual school

Davis: Parents are really part of the team. That is our challenge — making sure that our families are working at home. That is part of our job that is unique, too. We are not providing instruction all eight hours of the day. I do take time out of every day to make sure they are logging in and completing courses. But our job very much is teaching our students and guiding their learning coaches and families at home through our program.

Phillips: Coming in as a new teacher, it takes a little while to learn everything. But we have a really great system in place for training. I’ve been at four different school districts now, and I have never gotten as much training as I have at this place. They literally give you so many tools to learn from. But it does take a little bit to catch up on it in the beginning because there’s a lot of different platforms and technology that you have to learn.

Why do you think the performance of virtual schools isn’t better?

Phillips: We’re doing what we can with what we have. We have some kids that came to us that were below grade level, and we’re just trying to pull them up.

I had a kid a few weeks ago, and I heard on my microphone that it was noisy. She confided in me that she was in a hotel room because she was homeless. I immediately referred her to our (Family Academic Support Team). They get them resources. They find organizations in the area to help them get what they need to get on their feet. If we have students who aren’t showing up in class, maybe something like that is going on at home, and so we need to be aware.

Byron Ernest, Head of Hoosier Academies: When online education came into being, I think everybody thought, “You know what? The only people who will want to do this are ones that are super high-flyers.” And I think it didn’t take long for folks to realize, you will get those kids, but you’re also going to get students from all places, just like you would from any school.

Nobody was really prepared for that piece of how it was going to look. I think for the here and now, we realized, the teacher matters a lot in this. And I think that was a piece that maybe in the very beginning for all online education, that was maybe a piece that wasn’t there.

The other piece is really making sure that operationally, it still has to be a real school. Everything that goes on in any other school has to go on in an online school as well.

Derek Eaton, principal of Achieve Virtual Education Academy in Wayne Township: The majority of our 200 students, most are high school age, but of those in the seniors group, 18-19 year-olds, is our largest group of students.

And we’ve got quite a few adults, and they don’t want a GED. As long they don’t have a high school diploma we can take them. Now, adults tend to struggle the most. They get out of school mode, and what we see is life gets in the way. Up front they think (online school) is great, but they don’t consider themselves high school students — but we operate that way. You need to realize you are enrolling in high school again.

Melissa Brown, principal at Indiana Connections Academy: 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. So we have some really targeted efforts around engaging kids and keeping them here.

I will say first and foremost that our (English) scores are good. I’m very proud of that, but it also makes a lot of sense. Our students are probably reading more just by virtue of being in our school. I know our students are scoring lower than the state average in math, and it makes sense to me. Math is harder to learn online for a variety of reasons, but I think that daily instruction piece (is key). We need to get more to a model where students are doing daily math instruction.

That said, our math scores are trending up. While we’re not there yet at the state average, we’re getting there with a 2 percent increase every school year. It doesn’t seem like a lot, but it’s progress.

Now would I like for us to be an A school? Absolutely. You will never see me stop trying for an A, and I’m just that kind of person. But the truth is we have students who struggle. I know that answer sounds like an excuse, but these are students for whom nothing has worked before.