Open or closed? Parents and students at troubled Indiana virtual schools receive mixed messages

Confusion is swirling over whether two beleaguered online schools, at odds with the state and their oversight agency, are still operating, potentially leaving thousands of students and teachers in limbo.

Several teachers emailed their students and families over the weekend that Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy had unexpectedly closed.

“I cannot imagine how disappointing that is to read,” the emails said.

But on Monday, Superintendent Percy Clark sent out an email blast to students and informed the state that both online schools remain open.

Still, a school office on the north side of Indianapolis was dark and locked during business hours Monday morning, and the phone line instructed callers to leave messages. School officials did not respond to multiple calls and emails from Chalkbeat seeking comment.

The confusion is the latest chapter of the messy mismanagement at Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy. Under fire for allegedly over-reporting enrollment, the two online schools have taken in tens of millions of state dollars in each of the recent years — about twice as much as they were supposed to, state officials say — without disclosing spending.

Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy are under investigation by state auditors and have been cut off from state funding.

School officials have threatened that taking away public funds would force the schools to close immediately. The schools were already slated to close under pressure from their oversight agency, with Indiana Virtual School shuttering in September and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy closing at the end of the next school year.

According to several current and former employees, the virtual schools let go most of the support staff last week, leaving few if any people to take calls or process paperwork. Teachers didn’t know whether to keep working, whether they’d be paid, or what to tell their students, several told Chalkbeat.

For some families, who were unaware of the scandals surrounding the schools, the weekend emails came as a shock. They wondered what a sudden shutdown would mean for their children, who often chose the virtual charter schools after struggling at other schools.

It’s unclear whether the 2,500 active students had even been notified about the scheduled school closures. Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy were placed on notice last week by their oversight agency, Daleville Community Schools, for allegedly not following outlined steps for closing the schools.

Among the concerns: The schools claimed to have sent letters to families about the closure, but Daleville said it was unclear whether the letters were actually sent. Some families have told Chalkbeat that they hadn’t been told about the pending closures.

Indianapolis mother Angie Pogue said she hadn’t heard about the closure until her son, a senior at Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, received the email from teachers on Saturday.

The teachers’ emails advised students to stop doing classwork, saying many teachers had stopped grading, and credits wouldn’t be recorded. They indicated that families will likely have few supports and face challenges in getting student records.

“As for your credits and transcripts, I am hopeful that there will be a way for you to access those,” one email said.

Pogue’s son, who is on the autism spectrum and also has anxiety, began panicking that his school — “his safe haven,” Pogue said — would shut down before he could graduate.

Her son worked through the night to complete as much coursework as he could.

“What’s sad about what’s happening is it’s not the kids’ fault, it’s not the staff’s fault, it’s not the teachers’ fault,” Pogue said. “But they’re being punished for the mismanagement of funding.”

She contended that the consequences the schools face from Daleville and the state ultimately harm students, many of whom already feel like they have been failed by public schools in the past. She worried that if the schools close suddenly, many students like her son will be at risk of dropping out before they finish high school, and said she wants the schools to remain open long enough for students to be able to finish their work or navigate a smooth transfer.

“How is the money more important than these kids?” Pogue said.

Another Indiana Virtual School parent, who asked to be identified only by his first name, James, also said the teachers’ email was the first he heard about a potential closure.

When his son reached out to teachers asking for more information, one responded, “I have no answers.”

“If you are close in my class, finish quickly, and I will make sure you are finalized in the gradebook,” the teacher told James’ son.

James’ son is halfway through four classes that he started last month, which James said he now realizes was right around the time when the schools first came to a decision to close.

“The entire summertime he’s had here in the last month is now down the drain,” James said. “Which, for a kid who was trying to catch up in the first place, isn’t very fair.”

On Monday, James was trying to find another school for his son. But without his transcript, James could have trouble enrolling him in another online school or even in their local school district.

That was another problem that Daleville highlighted: Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy haven’t given them access to student records.

The schools are at risk of getting shut down sooner than planned by Daleville if they don’t address the issues raised over their closure process.

If the schools stay open for now, it’s unclear how well they can truly serve the students. One former employee said a stack of signed diplomas sits in the virtual schools’ office, ready to go out to families but with nobody around to send them.

Indiana Virtual School parent Rhonda Williamson said her son recently graduated, and they have been waiting for his diploma for a month.

“What a nightmare,” she said.


Document: Notice of default from Daleville to Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, July 15, 2019