Decatur Township launches new virtual school to compete with charter schools and other options

Decatur Township is launching its own online school with high hopes it will keep the school district competitive in an increasingly crowded field of public, charter and homeschools.

“With families have school choice now, it’s our responsibility to develop and bring different initiatives and ideas and innovative styles of programs to the education marketplace,” Assistant Superintendent Nate Davis said. “There’s a deep desire in our community … for different educational opportunities for students.”

The “MyLearning Virtual School” will open this fall and district leaders say it will give central Indiana families an option that will suit some of their children best, and still allow them to be connected to the school community through extracurricular activities and school events. Davis said the new program could also serve as a way to get more of the area’s 10,000 or so schoolchildren participating in the district. Right now, Decatur enrolls about 6,200 kids.

But the pressure is on to show that the district’s virtual program can escape the quality concerns that have accompanied the recent proliferation of online schools across the country.

Students at virtual charter schools in Ohio — one of the largest online schooling efforts in the country — were recently found to have lower performance than kids in brick-and-mortar schools, according to a recent study from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which corroborates findings from an 18-state study from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes in 2015. Georgia virtual schools have also struggled to find success.

“Academic benefits from online charter schools are currently the exception rather than the rule,” the Stanford researchers wrote.

Decatur’s program will serve students from kindergarten through high school, and for now, the staff and curriculum are provided through a partnership with Connections Learning, an online education provider owned by Pearson, the British company that now publishes Indiana’s state ISTEP exam.

The program also isn’t a separate school in the way the state’s other virtual schools are. The students will be counted for testing and accountability purposes with Stephen Decatur Elementary School, Decatur Middle School and the Decatur Township School for Excellence, the district’s alternative high school.

And that might be a good thing.

Indiana’s virtual schools — three charter schools (Hoosier Academy Virtual, Indiana Connections Academy, Indiana Virtual School) and Wayne Township’s virtual high school — haven’t had strong track records. None of the schools have earned a grade above a “D” from the state in recent years. The schools collectively enroll about 9,000 students across the state, fewer than 1 percent of all Indiana students.

Read: State board says no sanctions for 2 F-rated charter schools

Davis said he thinks Decatur can overcome that trend because kids have the ability to participate in classes and activities that might keep them engaged. Also, the school will work to make sure that students who apply are a good fit for online learning, which typically requires them to have parental support and be motivated on their own, Davis said.

So far, about 20 students have enrolled. The district is planning for up to 50. To learn more, parents can attend an information session at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Decatur Central High School’s media center. Fall enrollment ends Sept. 16.

“We totally support that (parents) want (their) student to be learning at home or virtually,” Davis said. “We want to provide maybe those missing pieces that will help the whole child learn — social, emotional as well as academic.”