With a budget crunch looming, this Michigan school is going virtual for good. Educators worry it’s a ‘foot in the door’ for online learning.

The Avondale board of education voted to shift an alternative school online during a virtual meeting on May 4, 2020.

As schools across Michigan struggle to educate students remotely, one is making a permanent shift to virtual instruction.

Teachers at Avondale Academy, a 117-student alternative school in the Detroit suburbs, will be replaced by an educational software program after the Avondale board of education voted to restructure the school. Officials say the move will save money as the district braces for steep budget cuts caused by COVID-19.

The plan hit a nerve with educators and advocates in the Avondale district and across Michigan, with more than a hundred logging onto a virtual school board meeting Monday to argue that online education shouldn’t replace the learning that goes on in classrooms. 

“It’s scary to know that we’re bringing in a computer to teach our kids — that’s a foot in the door” to more online learning, said Kathy Bommarito, a sixth-grade teacher at Avondale Middle School and president of the Avondale District’s teachers union. “It does scare us as public school teachers.”

Bommarito said she worried online learning would be an especially bad fit for students at the Academy, most of whom are economically disadvantaged and have struggled in mainstream classrooms.

Students will have contact with a mentor twice a week — not necessarily a certified teacher — and will still have access to school meals, school activities, and a computer lab maintained by the district. As part of the deal, they’ll each receive free laptops and home internet connections.

District officials say they’d been pondering a shift to online learning at Avondale Academy since before the coronavirus pandemic. Still, the pandemic has fueled concerns that Avondale won’t be the only district turning to online learning to cut costs. Schools are bracing for the steepest state budget cuts since the Great Recession, with state officials predicting a multibillion budget shortfall.

In a letter to the Avondale school board about the Academy, three Democratic state lawmakers warned that the pandemic shouldn’t lead to more students learning online.

“If this coronavirus pandemic has shown those in the world of education and public policy anything, it is that teachers cannot be replaced by computers,” Mari Manoogian, Padma Kuppa, and Brenda Carter wrote.

It’s too soon to say whether the elimination of in-person instruction at the Academy points to a broader shift toward virtual education in Michigan in the wake of the pandemic.

Budget cuts are coming, but not all districts will follow Avondale’s lead, said Chris Wigent, executive director of the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators. 

“That’s taking one situation and broad-brushing it,” he said. “I’ve talked to many superintendents, and there has not been a discussion of shifting any or all programs online.”

That may not be enough to reassure educators in a moment of historic uncertainty. On Tuesday, the governor in New York announced a partnership with the Gates Foundation to “reimagine” public education in the wake of the pandemic.

“All these physical classrooms — why, with all the technology you have?” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said, announcing the partnership. (The Gates Foundation is a Chalkbeat funder.)

Virtual schooling has spread rapidly across Michigan over the last decade, even though just 55% of students enrolled online pass their classes, compared with an estimated 90% of all students statewide, according to Joe Friedhoff, vice president of Michigan Virtual, a state-funded online learning provider. For alternative programs the number is even lower: 44% of those students pass their online courses.

The Academy’s students are among the most vulnerable in the state. In addition to the academic or behavioral struggles that led many of them to enroll there in the first place, 83% are economically disadvantaged. More than half are people of color. Three-quarters missed more than 10 days of school last year. The Academy earned F’s last year from the state for student test scores.

Students in alternative programs are especially reliant on their relationships with their teachers for academic motivation and emotional support, said Deb Baughman, president of the Michigan Alternative Education Association. Across the state, alternative programs have been shifting to online learning; about half of them currently offer full-time virtual learning.

“That trend is motivated by financial considerations as opposed to what works best for the typical alternative student,” Baughman said.

Two years ago, her organization named Avondale Academy the alternative program of the year, pointing to the strength of its art program.

“I feel sad,” she said of the program’s shift online. “They were doing great things, and it will be much more challenging to reach their students if their instruction is primarily virtual.”

Justin Bryant, a sophomore at Avondale Academy, agrees. He’s never found much to like about school: Bullies seemed to target him, and he struggled to pick up concepts as quickly as the other students. Things were better at the Academy, he said, because he connected with his art and math teacher. His grades improved, and he’d begun to believe that he stood a chance of graduating high school. Now he’s not so sure.

“I feel like it might actually harm my chances of graduating, because I’ve never been good with online things,” he said.

Avondale officials acknowledged that finances played a key role in the decision.

Superintendent James Schwarz said that enrollment in the Academy has decreased in recent years, making it harder to pay teachers at the school.

“There are financial issues without a doubt,” he said. “We’ve got classrooms with five to eight kids to a teacher, and that’s something we can’t sustain financially.”

The budget shortfall is especially pressing as the coronavirus blows a hole in the state budget, he added: “There’s going to be a whole lot of hurt going on, with cuts, with loss of programs. We’ve gotta create something that we can move forward with, knowing those cuts are coming.”

Schwarz estimated that the district will save about $180,000 by contracting out the school’s academic services to a private company, Diploma & Careers Institute, which already runs a credit recovery program for Avondale students in danger of dropping out of high school.

Under Michigan law, DCI can enroll students online from across the state, bringing in additional funding for each one. Todd Biederwolf, chief academic officer of DCI and the former superintendent of the Harper Woods school district, argued that the online program will help students graduate while bringing in new revenue.

Research indicates that while online programs can help students graduate, it’s not clear that they teach students much.

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