‘It takes your breath away.’ Advocates shocked by special education problems at embattled virtual schools

Last month, two of the state’s top education officials visited the offices of Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy to discuss why the schools weren’t doing enough to prepare students with disabilities for life after high school.

But in the nearly three-hour long meeting, larger concerns surfaced over how the troubled online schools might be failing to properly serve more than 600 students with special education needs, according to a letter from the state.

The failure to meet the needs of students with disabilities was one of several reasons why the schools’ oversight agency, Daleville Community Schools, voted Monday night to start the process of revoking the two virtual schools’ charters — a decision that the schools pledged Tuesday to fight.

Between the two schools, three teachers and two counselors were assigned to 616 students with disabilities, the state said — a ratio that one expert said spreads educators far too thin. The state also detailed requests from the schools to use public special education funds to reimburse employees’ travel expenses and foot the bill for a trip to Hawaii.

“That’s just extremely suspicious,” said Kim Dodson, executive director of The Arc of Indiana, an organization that supports people with disabilities.

In a written statement Tuesday, the virtual schools’ superintendent Percy Clark said data presented by Daleville “was inaccurate and incomplete.” A spokeswoman declined to elaborate or specifically address the claims about special education.

“We look forward to setting the record straight and, more importantly, continuing to provide educational opportunities for thousands of Hoosier students,” Clark said.

But experts called the issues raised over special education “highly problematic.”

Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, which serve more than 6,000 students, are two of the lowest-performing virtual schools. Indiana Virtual School has logged three consecutive F grades from the state, and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy has one of the lowest graduation rates of any public school in the state.

But the outcomes are even worse for students with disabilities, according to the Feb. 12 letter from the state. Students with disabilities at Indiana Virtual School have posted some of the lowest test score gains in the state, the state said, and very few students with disabilities have graduated from the school.

Online students across the country are serving a growing number of special education students, who often seek out the alternative learning environment. Students with disabilities can rely on a wide range of extra services, such as one-on-one attention and specific therapies — some of which are likely a challenge for virtual schools to offer. But there’s little national research on how well virtual schools serve students with special needs, a 2018 report from the National Education Policy Center notes.

The state’s recent concerns over the two virtual schools’ special education services stemmed from what are known as transition IEPs, which stands for Individualized Education Program. Public schools are required under federal law to craft individualized plans for each student who receives special education services. Transition IEPs prepare students for what happens after high school, such as college or careers, and connects them with transitional services.

But the state said last year, both Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy had “zero percent compliance” with transition IEPs. The state education department agreed to work with the schools to show teachers how to write compliant transition IEPs and review the plans.

The state also said Indiana Virtual School did not follow rules in 2016-17 on initial evaluations for students with disabilities but made corrections to address the problem.

“Indiana has too many strong resources for there not to be strong IEPs,” Dodson said. “If [students] are not on a good transition IEP going into high school, then they’re behind the eight ball on everything else that’s getting ready to come their way.”

Pat Rogan, a special education professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, said the complete lack of compliance “would indicate that’s not just a one-off mistake.”

The virtual schools told the state that they struggled to “find” students to complete the transition assessments. Students “disengage” from classes, and educators aren’t able to contact them, according to the letter. Educators said they try to reach out to students “through all means provided, including using the sheriff in counties to make visits to the last known address.”

A startlingly large number of students at Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy haven’t been taking any classes at the schools, Daleville revealed Monday through data from the state. The finding, which the schools contested, touches on a fear of state policymakers that students can easily get lost in virtual schools, particularly those who have left traditional public schools and might otherwise drop out.

The meeting on transition IEPs also raised broader concerns for state education officials over how the virtual schools were serving students with disabilities. In the letter, officials highlighted a wide range of possible violations in identifying, evaluating, and instructing students with special education needs.

“It takes your breath away,” Rogan said, “in terms of, if in fact those are valid, you get the sense — or at least I did — that they’re not even providing special ed services.”

The state did not respond to questions from Chalkbeat about the special education issues at the virtual schools. It’s still unclear when problems started and how they came to light.

“Where is the monitoring? Where are those people who should be on top of this?” Rogan said. “There should be oversight, so it wouldn’t catch anyone by surprise.”

The state’s letter also covered attempts by the virtual schools to use special education funds in questionable ways. The state spent more than three hours helping school employees — unnamed in the letter — apply for public funds that amounted to more than $1 million between the two virtual schools, the letter said.

Then, the state said the schools requested to use the funds for mileage, parking, and a per-diem allowance for the training they received.

“They also attempted to use funds for a trip to Hawaii,” the letter said.

The education department denied both requests.