Every couple of days, Holli Stevenson receives an email that her daughter, Abbey, has been put on probation for not showing up to school.
The email threatens that her daughter could be withdrawn from school, lose her driver’s license, or get called into truancy court if the family doesn’t get in touch within a week.
Stevenson has gotten these emails for five months now — but her daughter has been done with high school coursework for a year. They don’t even live in Indiana anymore. And the family has tried to get in touch with the school multiple times about Abbey’s diploma.
“As long as she’s a student, they’re getting paid,” Stevenson said.
Stevenson believes her daughter is likely one of the thousands of “ghost” students enrolled at Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy — inactive students who stay on the rolls and bring in more state funding for the troubled virtual charter schools.
A new report from the state examiner Monday revealed that the two online schools allegedly inflated their enrollments, reporting about twice as many students as they actually educated. The state board of education is expected to decide later this week whether to try to recover about $40 million from the schools.
Indiana Virtual School officials did not explain why they kept thousands of inactive or ineligible students on their rolls over three years. They said that they serve students who have struggled in traditional school settings and might be enrolled at their schools simply to get around mandatory attendance laws.
Among the students recorded as attending Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy were students who had long since moved to another state, a student who had died, and hundreds of students who had been withdrawn from the schools for being inactive.
This is a flaw in virtual charter school accountability, said Gary Miron, a Western Michigan University professor who has studied K-12 online schools. It’s easy for students to sign up, and it’s just as easy for students to leave, he said: “They just check out. They stop attending.”
If students stop going to virtual school but never formally transfer to another school, they don’t trigger a sign to the state that the virtual school should no longer be taking money to educate them.
“It could be intentional or unintentional, but [virtual charter schools] have so many students on their rolls who are not in the schools anymore,” Miron said. “They’re not cleansing their rolls of all the inactive students they shouldn’t be receiving money for.”
Stevenson’s daughter, for example, thought she was supposed to graduate last spring after she finished all her classes. But she missed a test required to graduate. She showed up to take the test but was directed to the wrong place and couldn’t find the right location.
Since then, the Stevenson family said they struggled to get in touch with school officials to sort out how Abbey can reschedule the test she needs for her diploma. They’ve sent emails, made phone calls, and left messages that they say go unreturned or are met with confused responses. Stevenson has missed phone calls from school officials and can’t reach them again.
Meanwhile, it appears Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy continues to consider Abbey a student. She moved to Ohio, but she can’t start college or have career opportunities without her diploma.
“I don’t understand what happened with the school,” Stevenson said. “I’m just at a loss with it.”