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

Former Indiana schools chief Glenda Ritz: Virtual schools ‘prey’ on vulnerable students

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
State Superintendent Glenda Ritz talks with reporters following an Indiana State Board of Education meeting in 2016.

As far as former state Superintendent Glenda Ritz is concerned, full-time online schools are “a failed alternative” to traditional schools.

In response to a Chalkbeat investigation of Indiana Virtual School published late last month, Ritz argued in an Indianapolis Business Journal column that virtual learning has its place in the classroom, but most of the time, online charter schools can’t meet the needs of their students.

Chalkbeat found that at Indiana Virtual School, a fast-growing online school which has already opened a second Indiana school, student-to-teacher ratios are sky-high and few students graduate. The school was also charged millions of dollars by its founder’s former company to manage the school, a set-up which has raised ethical questions.

She continued:

“Virtual learning has its place in all of our schools to deepen learning, enhance practice skills, and provide access to information. However, virtual learning should not be offered to students, using taxpayer money, as a complete alternative to school.

The key word is “school.” If you have not read the Oct. 31 special report from Chalkbeat titled, ‘As students signed up, online school hired barely any teachers — but founder’s company charged it millions,’ then you should. Not-for-profit companies like the one mentioned in the article make a lot of money getting chartered as a school and spending your tax dollars while failing to provide quality education to some of our most vulnerable students.

In Indiana, in the name of ‘choice,’ legislative leaders take money from these companies. These companies want to be able to effectively lobby for more state money to prey on our most vulnerable students through exclusive opportunities to capture more of the virtual education space.”

Since leaving office, Ritz has started her own consulting company, Advancing Public Schools. The organization works with public school district boards to promote their schools’ work and analyze and fill gaps in literacy and reading programs.

You can read the entire column here and find Chalkbeat’s investigation here.

 

behind the story

Few teachers, low scores, and ethical questions. Behind our Indiana Virtual School investigation.

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
A view outside of Indiana Virtual School's office, located in an office park at the northern edge of Marion County.

In the week since we published our investigation into Indiana Virtual School, thousands of people have learned about the school’s poor performance, unorthodox spending, and ineffective oversight. (If you need a refresher, this Twitter thread might help.)

Now, we’re taking you behind the story with an interview between Shaina Cavazos, the reporter who dug into Indiana Virtual School over the course of more than seven months, and Matt Barnum, Chalkbeat’s national reporter, who is keeping a close eye on where virtual schools stand across the country.

Read on to hear about the challenges Shaina encountered, the reaction so far, what comes next, and how you can help.

Matt: How did you decide to look into this school? What challenges did you run into?

Shaina: I actually started reporting on virtual schools more than a year ago when another school, Hoosier Academy Virtual, was up for state sanctions. I wanted to figure out what virtual schools were like given that they enroll about 1 percent of students in Indiana.

Once I looked past the schools backed by the big-name national organizations, I realized Indiana Virtual was just as large and growing incredibly fast — but few people I talked to were familiar with it. So I started digging.

Reporting about the school became difficult once the school stopped responding to a lot of the questions I was asking. It meant that even for finding out things as basic as their current enrollment, I had to find other sources of data and information. I did a lot of formal requests for records, and I worked quite a bit with the state department of education’s data team to figure out what data was out there and how I could access it. I couldn’t always get documents, but usually I found out that the law said I had a right to them. It pushed me to learn about what documents were available to me because I knew few things stood in the way of what I should be able to get legally.

What has the reaction been?

I don’t think the school is happy with the story, but they haven’t agreed to a conversation about it.

In general, schools want to talk about their students who are successful, which I get. But a lot of students at this school are not successful, according to the state’s expectations. We can’t ignore that. We need to talk about those students and make sure they’re receiving an education and not just being enrolled somewhere.

I’m still talking to people who could take action to get their reaction. Intervention from the state board is still a few years away, if it happens at all, and the education department has not indicated they’re going to be doing anything in particular to this situation even though our state superintendent has spoken out about a need for more monitoring of online schools.

That leaves lawmakers. I’ve talked to some Democrats who are outraged about what’s going on, but they aren’t the party in power here — Republicans have a majority in both houses.

I’m still reaching out to lawmakers on both sides to talk about what might happen next. But ultimately, they created the system, so they’re the ones who can most easily change it.

Why was this story important for Chalkbeat to do?

At Chalkbeat, we’re focused on writing about students who have historically lacked access to a quality education. We’re always looking at our stories through a lens of equity — who isn’t being served? Many of students at this virtual school come from families living in poverty. While it’s not as racially or ethnically diverse as schools in a lot of the districts we write about, many students have disabilities or are learning English for the first time. And in a lot of cases, they aren’t getting the support they need to be successful.

Why should a reader outside of Indiana read your article?

You might not be aware of it, but something like this could be happening in your state too. Thirty-four states have virtual schools.

A lot of them have gone through something similar — Ohio is one example, and so is Colorado. It’s something we’re only going to see become more of an issue. Specifically talking about Indiana Virtual School, well, they are expanding, with schools in the works in Michigan and Texas.

Also, Betsy DeVos, our U.S. secretary of education, has promoted online schools. When the nation’s top education official is signing off on something, I’d say that makes scrutiny pretty important.

What comes next?

A top priority is to hold officials in Indiana accountable for reading and responding to the story. I’m working on that now, and when I learn more I’ll report back.

I’m also trying to learn even more about what it’s like for students in online schools — Indiana Virtual or others. I put a survey in the article so people could tell me their stories, and now I’m just trying to get the word out.

Find our investigation here.