online and off track

The broken promise of Indiana’s online schools

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
A Hoosier Virtual teacher keeps track of answers during a math review game.

One in a Chalkbeat series about virtual schools.

When Indiana education officials released school A-F grades this week, only three schools had received F grades for six years in a row.

Two were traditional public schools in Gary and Marion County, and the other was Hoosier Academy Virtual Charter school, which does all its teaching and learning online. For the traditional public schools, the sixth straight F marks the first time the state can potentially close the school.

READ: Find more coverage of Indiana online schools here.

But for charter schools, the limit is set at four, a milestone Hoosier Virtual surpassed almost two years ago. Despite its poor performance, the state has not taken steps to close the school or restrict state funding to its charter authorizer, Ball State University.

Hoosier Virtual was told in March 2015 to figure out a plan to improve. But while school officials did that, they came back to the board in August of this year with something unexpected: Hoosier Virtual had opened a new school, transferring 663 of its students there.

“It’s stunning, frankly, to see what Ball State (is doing) in Indiana,” said Todd Ziebarth, senior vice president for state advocacy and support for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a group that typically advocates for charter school expansion. “To see them approve a new charter … and let the school off the hook, or at least that’s what it appears … there’s just a lot of questions that come up.”

Letting Hoosier Academies open another school sends the message that state rules can be ignored, Ziebarth said.

But Byron Ernest, head of Hoosier Academies’ three schools and also a state board member as of June of last year, said opening the new school, called Insight School of Indiana, was a way for the network to focus on students who needed more help than could be offered in a typical online classroom.

“That was the right thing to do for our students, and so that was the reasoning behind that,” Ernest said. He recused himself from the most recent state board hearing when Hoosier Academy was on the agenda.

Hoosier Academies is not alone in its struggle to improve its schools. Every online school in the state that tested students in 2016 — including four charter schools  — received an F grade: Hoosier Academy Virtual, Hoosier Academy-Indianapolis, Insight School of Indiana, Indiana Connections Academy, Indiana Virtual School and Wayne Township’s virtual high school.

Indiana tracks with the national trend. Virtual charter schools perform far below peers in traditional brick-and-mortar schools on state tests, but many states have so far been loathe to take dramatic steps to improve them.

“When we see these results in traditional public schools, we are outraged,” Ziebarth said. “And we should be equally outraged when we see them in a (virtual) public school.”

Since their start in 2009, Indiana’s online schools have grown tremendously, in some cases going from a couple hundred students to a few thousand. Currently, 11,442 Indiana students are enrolled in virtual schools, about 1 percent of all Indiana students. There are no specific restrictions on growth, regardless of performance.

Virtual charter schools were meant to help nontraditional students maintain consistent education. That could include Olympic athletes who train for hours each day, students with chronic health problems or long-term illness who are often absent, kids with social anxiety or other disabilities or families where parents want to be more involved with day-to-day schooling but can’t take on the full responsibility of homeschooling.

“My vision when I started this was (kids) could learn anywhere, any time, on their agenda, at their pace,” said Ron Brumbarger, who helped found Hoosier Academies and later joined its board. He also homeschooled his own children. “(There is a fallacy) that the bricks (of a school building) have intelligence around them.”

Brumbarger said he wanted to give families maximum control over their child’s education to allow kids to be curious and learn at their own speed, in their own way. If they wanted to take field trips and visit the original 13 colonies rather than read a textbook in a classroom to study history, why not let them?

It’s true that some nontraditional students thrive in an online school environment where they can control where, when and how they learn. But for the majority of the Indiana students in online schools, the flexibility and lack of teacher oversight aren’t working. Virtual schools see high rates of student turnover from year to year. At Hoosier Academies, for example, more than half of students turn over each year.

Online schools can attract students who tend to be more difficult to educate and more likely to move around. Indiana virtual school principals said parents and students can look at online learning as a last chance when other types of schooling haven’t worked. Some of these children might have behavior problems or other issues in traditional schools.

“Because we get students where some are like, this is a last-ditch effort for them, it’s really, really hard sometimes to make progress with those kids who just stay for a little while,” said Melissa Brown, principal at Connections Academy. “We believe that if we can keep kids, we can really help them.”

But as Rep. Bob Behning, chairman of the House Education Committee and author of the original virtual schools law, said, it’s not just virtual charter schools that face problems of high mobility. Although the legislature has yet to take action, Behning said he’s heard about systems in other states, such as Ohio, where mobility is taken into consideration for all schools, and the newest students might be left out of the A-F rankings so schools aren’t dinged for a problem they didn’t create.

Online schoolwork, much more self-directed and self-paced than in a school building, demands more discipline from the students and their parents. In many of the state’s virtual charters, students are required to log between 30 and 40 hours a week of schoolwork, but that usually doesn’t have to happen face-to-face with a teacher, and in grades with older students, parents can become less involved.

Brooke Butts, a senior from North Liberty getting ready to graduate next year from Indiana Connections Academy, has been in and out of virtual schools since she was in seventh grade.

“It’s really hard to stay motivated and just sit down and make sure you do your work. You can get behind so fast — trust me I know,” Butts said.

“You can definitely not blame anything on the teachers because if you don’t ask (for help), it’s on you. If you don’t do the work, it’s on you. If you are not responsible, you probably should not do virtual school.”

Yet some virtual school students are not motivated to learn on their own, and not all of them have parents who can be around to help manage or oversee their school day. Some kids who enter an online school and are multiple grade levels behind might need even more attention from a teacher. That’s not impossible, but it is more challenging when lessons aren’t mandatory and students control their own pace.

Even though teachers host live online lessons, where they’ll lecture a group of students, demonstrate math problems or lead a reading or writing exercise, students are typically not required to attend. The teachers who spoke with Chalkbeat said they tried to communicate regularly with kids and parents through email, phone and internet messaging.

“If they don’t come, I keep an eye on their attendance,” said Kris Phillips, a teacher at Hoosier Virtual. “If they miss three in a row, then I’m right on them.”

If those kids already lack a reliable support system at home, going to an online school can be like not attending school at all. But for some kids, such as those with long-term medical problems, social anxiety issues or other special learning needs, the flexibility found in virtual schools is a positive.

Jamie Leffel was one of the early online school adopters, enrolling her sons at a hybrid Hoosier Academies campus in Muncie that has since closed. Now, they’re sixth- and eighth-graders.

“We started in a traditional brick-and-mortar school and just decided there were several reasons” to switch to virtual school, Leffel, who lives in Madison County, said.

Her older three children did well in traditional schools, but the younger boys didn’t quite fit. Leffel wanted to make sure there was an emphasis on curiosity, self-motivation and going to college — things she didn’t think they got from their previous school.

“(Virtual school) is a good blend, I think, of the way we learn, how we can learn and, you know, where this world is headed,” Leffel said.

In Indiana, the poor performance hasn’t gone completely unnoticed. Ernest, the head of all Hoosier Academies schools, said he’s had conversations with lawmakers about whether the state’s A-F system should be adjusted to deal with the challenges virtual schools face — such as high turnover — something other virtual school principals said they’d favor.

Another idea would be to give a bonus or extra support to schools that can actually help students graduate who don’t have enough credits, or consider models that give schools money for the courses students complete rather than how many enroll. Currently, virtual charter schools receive 90 percent of state tuition support, a percentage that’s been inching up since the pilot program was established.

“We want to be as reflective as possible as to what the true performance of the school is,” Behning said. “I’m open to looking at options, but I think my primary focus is always what’s best for kids, not what’s best for institutions. I don’t want to whitewash the problem — if there’s a problem there, then we need to be addressing it.”

In January, Ernest said state board members will again review what has been going on at Hoosier Virtual, taking into account their recent ISTEP passing rates and F grade. Then in April, the board is scheduled to come back and make a decision on how to move forward with the school.

But even by this spring, it won’t be clear how the Insight school has performed or how transferring students has affected Hoosier Virtual  — Indiana schools will still be in the process of taking ISTEP, and 2017 test scores or state grades won’t be available.

But Gordon Hendry, a state board member, said at this point he’s only looking as far ahead as the January hearing. There’s plenty left for the board to discuss, he said, including details about the Insight school and what’s best for the parents and students who attend both schools. He said the board was right to delay action in August and wait until they feel they’ve gotten enough information to make an appropriate decision.

“I never felt locked into the April deadline,” Hendry said. “I’m focused primarily on getting the update in January … we’re dealing with these very serious issues, and the on-the-ground assessment from the professionals at the Department of Education is critical. As I heard last fall, the (reports) were positive in terms of the changes that have been made.”

Indiana online schools

Indiana Virtual School has the lowest graduation rate of any public school in the state

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Indiana Virtual School is located in the Parkwood office park at 96th St. and College Ave near the northern edge of Marion County.

For the second year in a row, Indiana Virtual School graduated a lower percentage of students than almost every other high school in the state.

In 2017, 6.5 percent of students graduated — 64 students out of 985. Of the schools the state provided data for, only a private school that caters to students with significant intellectual and behavioral disabilities posted lower numbers. Indiana Virtual’s rate is up slightly from 5.7 percent the year before.

It’s possible there are other schools with lower graduation rates, but the state does not release data for schools with fewer than 10 students in the graduating class to comply with federal privacy laws.

The graduation data, released this week by the Indiana Department of Education, comes months after a Chalkbeat Investigation found widespread low performance at Indiana Virtual School and questionable business and spending practices.

Special Report: As students signed up, online school hired barely any teachers — but founder’s company charged it millions

From 2016 to 2017, the school’s graduating class more than doubled. Last May, Indiana Virtual School enrolled nearly 4,700 students. Despite Indiana Virtual’s poor performance, it continues to bring in millions of dollars from the state. In September, it opened a second school. After shifting almost 3,000 of its students to the new Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy in the fall, Indiana Virtual had 3,376 students.

Indiana Virtual has received two failing grades from the state since it opened in 2011. Last year, 20 percent of sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade students and 8 percent of 10th-graders at Indiana Virtual passed the English and math state tests. Statewide, about half of students in grades K-8 and one-third of high school students passed both exams.

Thomas Burroughs, the school’s lawyer and former board member, defended the school’s performance to Chalkbeat in October, saying the school offers a last chance to students who would have no other way to graduate. The school’s superintendent, Percy Clark, also said many students at the school enroll after having been expelled elsewhere and start behind their peers.

Across the state, 87.2 percent of students graduated from high school in 2017. The rate is calculated by dividing the number of students in a high school cohort by the number of them who graduate as seniors after four years.

Every online charter school in Indiana graduated fewer students than the state as a whole, though some, such as Indiana Connections Academy and Hoosier Academy Indianapolis, a hybrid school with a traditional campus on the city’s east side, show marked improvement from last year. Insight School of Indiana has no data for 2016 because it had not yet opened.

School 2017 graduation rate 2016 graduation rate
Indiana Virtual School 6.50% 5.7%
Hoosier Academy Indianapolis 68.42% 53.3%
Insight School of Indiana 17.21%
Hoosier Academy Virtual 23.32% 22.7%
Indiana Connections Academy 49.48% 43.9%

Although Gov. Eric Holcomb has already committed to working with the state board to look into online charter schools, he has not specified what action they will take. Earlier this month, lawmakers also proposed laws to tighten up the state’s rules for charter school oversight, but this soon in the legislative session, it’s hard to say how far such proposals will get.

Learn more about Indiana Virtual School and online charters in the state here.

bills

Two Indiana Senate bills would tighten up rules for charter school oversight

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Both of these bills are coming from lawmakers who are part of the Senate Education Committee.

Two Indiana senators — a Republican and a Democrat — are calling for the state to reform how charter schools are overseen.

Sen. Dennis Kruse, an Auburn Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee, and Sen. Mark Stoops, a Bloomington Democrat also on the committee, have each proposed a bill to ensure charter school authorizers cannot open new schools or renew charters without evidence that students are learning.

The bills come two months after a Chalkbeat investigation revealed that while the small Daleville Community School District charged with overseeing Indiana Virtual School has appeared to follow state law, it isn’t necessarily meeting the needs of the school’s thousands of students.

Special Report: As students signed up, online school hired barely any teachers — but founder’s company charged it millions

The district was on track to earn at least $750,000 in fees last year overseeing Indiana Virtual, which over its six-year lifespan has earned two F-grades and, in 2016, managed to muster only single-digit graduation rates. The school continues to bring in millions of state dollars for its students, and in September, opened up a second school, also chartered by Daleville.

Kruse’s Senate Bill 350 says an authorizer cannot offer a contract, or charter, to an existing organizer unless its current students are achieving academically. Organizers are nonprofits that run charter schools. They’d have to provide evidence that could include test scores, attendance rates, graduation rates, increased numbers of students taking advanced classes or earning honors diplomas.

The bill would require the Indiana Department of Education to create rules by Nov. 1 to prevent charter school organizers from committing financial or enrollment “fraud, waste and abuse.” Schools would also have to submit an annual report that includes audits, the most recent enrollment count, and a list of employee salaries.

Currently, Indiana authorizers — which include universities, mayors, or school districts — can only be punished for their school’s bad academic performance, not other kinds of missteps. This bill would empower the state board to more closely scrutinize and take action regarding charter schools and authorizers.

If the department finds the school was in violation, the department would be required to tell the organizer and recommend that the state board do one of the following:

  • Require the school’s authorizer to revoke its charter,
  • Withhold funding from the school, or
  • Require the school to take action to remedy its problems.

Stoops’ Senate Bill 315 goes even further by placing more restrictions on authorizers that are school districts or universities. He said he wasn’t aware that Kruse was offering a bill on the same topic, but that he looks forward to talking with him about it. He’s worked unsuccessfully before to regulate authorizing, but new information about online charter schools has spurred him to address it again this year.

“Charter schools are a little out of control,” Stoops said. “They continue to take students even when they fail, and the whole issue of how authorizers get a cut of their funding, so there’s a lot of incentive for authorizers to create these new schools.”

The bill removes the 2015 grandfathering provision that let existing authorizers avoid screening by the Indiana State Board of Education before they were allowed to open charter schools. Under the bill, these authorizers must now be screened before they can renew existing charters or authorize new schools.

The bill does not change the fact that the state board does not screen school districts, such as Daleville, but instead requires them to register as authorizers, and they are automatically approved.

Stoops also included language in the bill that would give charter school authorizers stricter rules around what state grades are needed to open or renew schools. The bill says that an authorizer may not sponsor a charter school if that school’s organizer already runs a school in Indiana that has received a D or F grade for two consecutive years.

Read: In danger of closure, virtual charter surprises state board by transferring students to sister school

Like in the state’s voucher law, grades would be factored into whether charter schools can enroll new students under Stoops’ plan.

Starting July 1, a charter school that earns a D or F for two consecutive years cannot accept new students for one year. If the school earns a third D or F, the school may not accept new students until it earns a C-grade or better for two consecutive years. If a school earns an F grade for three consecutive years, it cannot enroll new students until it has received a C-grade or better for three consecutive years.

The bill also would eliminate the fees all authorizers can collect for overseeing schools starting in July. Now, authorizers can get up to 3 percent of a charter school’s state funding.

Although these provisions don’t apply to all authorizers, David Harris, executive director for The Mind Trust, said he worries aspects of both bills infringe on the autonomy that can also make charter schools successful. The Mind Trust works closely with Mayor Joe Hogsett’s office on supporting mayor-sponsored charter schools in Indianapolis.

“Specific rules written to restrict the decisions of authorizers will not transform bad authorizers into high-quality authorizers,” Harris said.

This early in the session, it’s hard to say how far such proposals will get. Committee chairs like Kruse tend to advance bills they author, but Stoops’ bill faces another hurdle: Democrats are in the vast minority in the General Assembly, and it’s the majority party that has the discretion to say what merits discussion. That said, Gov. Eric Holcomb, a Republican, has already committed to working with the state board to look into virtual schools.

Ultimately, Stoops said that the track records and poor performance of some charter schools and online schools speak for themselves, and he thinks it’s causing policymakers to take a second look at how to regulate them.

“How do they get away with it?” Stoops said. “I think that’s definitely worth dealing with.”