Some Indiana Virtual School graduates wonder what’s next for the closing program

Days after Indiana Virtual School and its sister school announced plans to close following a series of negative revelations, about 70 of their students graduated Saturday at a ceremony north of Indianapolis.

Though the schools stand at the center of controversy about poor academic results and the enrollment of students who never earned credits, few graduates and parents said they knew about the closing. Instead, they focused on how Indiana Virtual School prepared them for their next steps — college enrollment, career paths, and a stable life.  

“I was bullied. I went through a lot of stuff in high school,” Victoria Wagner, 18, said after receiving her diploma at the Ritz Charles, an event venue in Carmel.  “At the virtual school, it was just me, my computer, and my phone.”

Talks of the impending closure were also absent from the formal ceremony, where graduates clad in all-white caps and gowns cheered in a room crowded with their relatives and friends.

Percy Clark, superintendent of Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, told the dozens of students and families assembled to embrace their moment as graduates. He also defended the two schools under his direction and urged the graduating class to “keep the door open” for siblings, friends, and strangers in need of a fresh start.

“It seems like any time we do something good, someone wants to tell us something bad,” Clark said in his address. He added the schools and the students they serve face “enemies,” and that the school community will have to “let God the Almighty deal with them.”

On Monday, the virtual charter school’s authorizer, Daleville Community Schools, revealed it had reached an agreement to close Indiana Virtual School in September. Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy will close at the end of the 2019-20 year.

The closing agreement unearthed several new details about the relationship between Indiana Virtual School and Daleville. The closing agreement showed the virtual charter school network overpaid Daleville by more than $650,000 in administrative fees, for example.

But after the Daleville Community Schools Board approved the agreement in under ten minutes, there are questions that remain unanswered, such as why the majority of the two virtual schools’ enrolled students never earned a single credit last year.

While Saturday’s ceremony focused on the success of graduating virtual school students, the schools’ problems have grown from the many who don’t. In 2018, about 2% of Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy’s 1,009 seniors graduated — a dismal outcome in a state where at least 80% of seniors graduate on average. Likewise, Indiana Virtual School saw only 24% of its 1,112 seniors graduate in 2018.

Indiana Department of Education data shows there were 131 seniors and adult students enrolled at Indiana Virtual School this year, and Indiana Virtual Pathways recorded 4,057 additional seniors and adult students enrolled. But it wasn’t immediately clear how many students moved through the schools this year, as is common at online schools, and final graduation rates aren’t yet available. In addition to Saturday’s ceremony, another graduation was held for the schools on June 15.

Parents enroll their students in virtual charter schools for a variety of reasons. The families present at the graduation ceremony Saturday spoke about the school as a second chance for their children, whose struggles with school stemmed from health disorders, uncaring teachers, and daily distractions from peers.

When Sandy Payton, 42, moved with her family from Hammond to Portage, Indiana, the adjustment her young daughters had to face was difficult.

Her daughter, 16-year-old Abigail, experiences chronic migraines that require medication and frequent trips to a neurologist for check-ins and notes to excuse her from class.

And her other daughter, an 18-year-old Indiana Virtual School graduate named Rebecca, faced anxiety and social challenges after transferring to a much larger high school.

After spending her senior year at home with Indiana Virtual School, Rebecca Payton was able to finish on time without the discomfort she felt in her traditional high school, where she said she couldn’t connect with her teachers and other students.

Her time in the program paid off, her family said. In the fall, she’ll attend Purdue University Northwest, where she plans to study early childhood education and pursue her dream of being “a mother to everyone.”

Sandy Payton said she didn’t know about the impending closure prior to her interview with Chalkbeat. She said the decision both surprised and disappointed her, noting she intended to keep Abigail, a junior, in the virtual charter school to ensure she has the ability to control her learning environment and work at her own pace.

“She already started her junior year classes. What am I going to do?” the mother asked. “We don’t want to go back to a normal school.”

It’s likely families like the Paytons will be invited to enroll in Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, given that it will be open for another year. But unless Abigail Payton can finish a year’s worth of classes ahead of schedule, Sandy Payton said they’ll have to consider other options for school.

And they, like other families grappling with the closure, don’t want to do that.

The graduates also don’t want to see struggling students lose out on an opportunity that helped them create a meaningful future

“If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be where I am now,” Wagner said about the program, which she said helped her solidify her desire to be an emergency medical technician (EMT). In high school, she said she struggled with addiction and dropped out twice before finding Indiana Virtual School.

While some Indiana Virtual School students and parents have told Chalkbeat that getting help from instructors was challenging, Saturday’s graduates described a different experience. At one time, Wagner said she couldn’t see a future for herself. But at Indiana Virtual School, she would schedule weekly calls with her teacher for support — a relationship that she said helped her finish her junior and senior classes in just four months. Now, she plans to enroll in EMT training through Ivy Tech Community College.

It’s outcomes like this, she said, that other schools don’t guarantee to students in situations like hers. And that’s why she said news of the closure has her “fired up.”

“Other schools don’t really give a damn.”