Some parents say getting help was like ‘pulling teeth’ as troubled Indiana virtual schools grew

Zachary Morrice said his main responsibility as a student services representative for Indiana Virtual School several years ago was to recruit as many students as possible — usually about a dozen a day.

Morrice said he’d call students and parents after they filled out online forms expressing interest in enrolling in the virtual charter school. But over time, he felt pressured to enroll students even if he couldn’t reach them. And other times, he noticed students who weren’t assigned classes remained on the school’s books, sometimes for months, with no one contacting them.

“It was frustrating because I spent most of my time enrolling new people and reaching out to new people and assigning classes to new people,” said Morrice, 26, who worked at the school from December 2016 through March 2017. “But there was no strategy or system in place for reaching out to students who were inactive.”

Morrice’s portrayal, which he documented in a complaint to the state education department two years ago, lines up with some accusations leveled against the 8-year-old online school and its sister school by its authorizer last month: that thousands of students for whom the schools received millions of dollars in state funding didn’t complete or sign up for classes. The schools say the allegations, which could lead to the revocation of their charters and eventually their closure, are false and based on incomplete information.

Some virtual school students and parents who spoke with Chalkbeat also echoed Morrice’s description of how the school often didn’t give students enough attention, including not returning phone calls and emails. The parents and students said they struggled to get teachers and school staff to communicate, transfer records, provide educational advice, or ensure credits were processed.

“It seemed like pulling teeth,” said Michaela Taylor, the mother of a former student.

Online schools first appeared in Indiana about a decade ago as a way for homeschooled students and those with medical issues or the need for a more flexible learning environment to attend public school. And indeed, some students who talked to Chalkbeat praised Indiana Virtual School, crediting it with helping them graduate and supporting them through difficult circumstances when other schools could not.

Read: How lax oversight and rapid growth fueled dismal results for Indiana’s virtual charter schools

Enrollment quickly swelled at the schools, thanks to the state’s favorable laws and lack of regulation about how fast they could grow. School leaders also had an incentive: Indiana’s funding system that gives schools more money for each student they bring in. Today, Indiana Virtual School and its sister school, Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, enroll more than 6,000 students and could get more than $40 million from the state this year.

But staffing didn’t appear to keep pace with that expansion. The schools have already received scrutiny for their tiny teaching staffs — with Indiana Virtual School at one time having more than 200 students for every teacher. And the schools have posted dismal academic results, with graduation rates in the single digits in recent years and a fraction of students passing state exams. Indiana Virtual School received its third F grade in a row from the state last year.

In an emailed statement, Thomas Burroughs, a lawyer for Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, did not directly address whether Morrice’s description of the school’s student enrollment practices and outreach to inactive students was accurate. He also did not respond to requests about specific student and parent experiences. Burroughs said the schools could not remove inactive students from their rolls until a new state law took effect in fall of 2017.

Burroughs did stress in the statement that the schools serve a troubled student population, with about 50 percent of students having previously been suspended or expelled from other schools. “Most are severely credit deficient and read well below grade level,” Burroughs said in the statement. Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy is “a last chance school for a very good reason.”

Morrice said he wasn’t surprised when he heard about the allegations made against the schools by their authorizer, Daleville Public Schools, in February. The most damning charges center on claims that thousands of students they were funded for didn’t complete classes or never took them to begin with. The schools will defend themselves at a June hearing.

When Morrice made his complaint to state officials in the spring of 2017, he was told the state didn’t have the authority to investigate, but that the information would be sent to officials at Daleville. In a statement, a spokeswoman for Daleville said the district was made aware of the complaint and discussed it with Percy Clark, Indiana Virtual School’s superintendent, at the time. Because Daleville did not have access to the school’s data then, officials said, they had to accept what Clark told them.

“Dr. Clark provided information that either countered or contradicted the employee’s allegations,” the statement said. “Daleville was reliant upon Dr. Clark’s explanation.”

Morrice said the school fired him a couple of days after he made the complaint to the state education department because of information he included that the school believes to be confidential.

“It became very clear that all they cared about was enrolling new students,” Morrice said, based on his experience. “They want to cut corners.”

In the years since Morrice filed his complaint, thousands more students have attended Indiana Virtual School. In fall of 2017, officials opened their second school.

‘We thought it would get better’

Taylor sought out online school because of her daughter’s disability — a situation several families told Chalkbeat drove them to leave their traditional school in search of something more flexible.

Attending school over the computer would mean Taylor’s daughter wouldn’t have to put up with bullying or trying to physically navigate a big school building — a challenge as she deals with a chronic illness that can make walking difficult. Online school would also afford her daughter the opportunity to do schoolwork in between doctors appointments. Chalkbeat decided not to name Taylor’s daughter to protect her privacy.

But while Taylor said her daughter benefited from getting to learn outside a traditional classroom through Indiana Virtual School after enrolling for her sophomore year in 2015, it became increasingly difficult to contact teachers and school staff.

Phone calls and emails weren’t returned, Taylor said. Her daughter would ask questions about assignments only to have them answered after the work was due. They put up with it for about a year and a half, when Taylor’s daughter finally decided she wanted to spend her senior year with her friends back at traditional high school in Wayne Township.

“We thought it would get better,” Taylor said. “And for like month it did — it got better — and then it got back to the way it was.”

The lack of communication is troubling to critics of virtual schools, especially as the population at the schools change from families able to support a child working independently to students who need to work or have other instability at home. In an online school, where students are mostly working independently, researchers and some virtual schools themselves say being able to contact educators can be critical to student success.

The high student-to-teacher ratios, lack of student engagement, and high student mobility are often blamed for the schools’ academic shortcomings. Students at most virtual schools, in Indiana and other states, perform far below average on metrics like state tests and graduation rate. Last year, Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy graduated just 2 percent of its 1,009 seniors, and 5.7 percent of 10th-graders passed both state English and math exams.

At Indiana Virtual School, about 24 percent of seniors graduated in 2018, the same year the school received its third F grade from the state. About 19 percent of elementary and middle school students passed both tests, and 4 percent of high-schoolers did.

For Taylor, leaving the school would prove to be just as frustrating as trying to contact her daughter’s teachers, if not more.

Taylor said the school repeatedly failed to send her daughter’s transcripts to her new school. It took months of unreturned calls, emails, and even physical visits — 90 minutes each way — to get them. Taylor worried that without the records, she’d face scrutiny or legal issues for the weeks of school her daughter ended up missing as they worked to make the transfer official.

“I told them I was going to get a lawyer because I was tired of fighting with the system to get her stuff that she needed to go to school,” Taylor said. “I didn’t want someone to say that I’m depriving my child of an education.”

‘A lifesaver’

Jennifer Garcia, 49, of Milford, Indiana, could not have had a more different experience with the school, showing just how inconsistent the online school environment can be.

She said Indiana Virtual School has “been a lifesaver” for her eighth grade son, Adam, who deals with anxiety and depression that kept him from being able to attend a traditional school.

Indiana Virtual School’s principal and teachers have been responsive, she said, and with the flexibility of learning online whenever works best for him, her son has been able to catch up on work that he had missed due to a hospital stay and other complications. His stepmother works with him on his schoolwork during the day.

“This is the first semester where he actually is enjoying school, and he wants to move faster now,” Garcia said. “He’s feeling more driven and seeing that he has a lot of opportunities.”

She said she feels like the public school system doesn’t want to deal with students like her son, and she doesn’t want to fight with brick-and-mortar schools to educate her son. That leaves those students to turn to alternatives such as Indiana Virtual School, she said.

The students who seem best suited to succeed at Indiana Virtual School, and online schools in general, are students looking to get ahead who don’t need as much one-on-one guidance, like Naomi Barrett, who graduated in 2017.

For Barrett, Indiana Virtual School gave her a chance to bypass the busy work and slower pace she was frustrated by in traditional school. She started at the school as a sophomore in 2015. Barrett, now 20, is studying graphic design at IUPUI.

“Whenever I was in traditional school, I was always feeling bored because I understood the curriculum faster than it was being taught,” Barrett said. “I would sit around and draw in my notebook all day.”

When her mom suggested she try online school, she thought it sounded like a good idea. Her teachers were good about getting back to her when she had questions, but most of the time, she was OK on her own, she said.

“I talked with my instructors maybe once a month, but that was only because I didn’t really need too much help,” Barrett said.

‘It was basically a waste of time’

Indianapolis mom Bianca Weatherspoon, 40, chose Indiana Virtual School for her daughter, Jeanette, typically a good student, after her grades plummeted following a tough transition in middle school.

A doctor recommended online school, and the family picked Indiana Virtual School because it was accredited and Jeanette could enroll right away. She transferred in the middle of her freshman year in 2016.

Like Taylor, Weatherspoon initially appreciated the flexibility. But from the start, she said, Indiana Virtual School treated her daughter’s education “like a business transaction.”

“If you have a question, you need to reach out and ask,” she said. “They’re not going to volunteer information.”

The stakes can be high for parents or guardians when they assume the responsibility of monitoring their children’s education. All of the state’s online charter schools say it’s critical for students to have an adult at home to supervise, but even engaged parents like Taylor and Weatherspoon struggled.

Weatherspoon said she had to tell Jeanette’s teachers when her daughter finished classes so she could receive credits and advance to the next class. She also took the lead on signing Jeanette up for classes and figuring out what she needed to get her diploma. Communication broke down so much with Indiana Virtual School that Weatherspoon said Jeanette didn’t end up receiving credit for Advanced Placement classes that would put her ahead in college. Now, Jeanette has to make those classes up.

“To me we’re behind the eight ball,” Weatherspoon said. “What are we doing here? … It was basically a waste of time.”

After almost two years, her daughter — now 16 and a junior — decided to switch back to her local public school, Pike High School. It took three months to get her daughter’s student records from Indiana Virtual School, which kept agreeing to send them but never did, Weatherspoon said.

“I had to have my husband physically appear at Indiana Virtual School to get a copy of all the records that her high school required in order to enroll her, because they had not sent them,” she said.

The confusion didn’t end after Jeanette left the school. Even then, Weatherspoon said her daughter continued to receive emails about classes she wasn’t attending.