online and off track

The broken promise of Indiana’s online schools

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
A Hoosier Academy 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 state board OKs committee to consider virtual charter school rules

PHOTO: Chalkbeat staff
Indiana State Board of Education member Gordon Hendry proposed the resolution to create the committee.

The Indiana State Board of Education is moving forward with forming a committee that is expected to look closely into how virtual charter schools are regulated.

The step comes nearly five months after Gov. Eric Holcomb called for “immediate attention and action” on Indiana’s subpar online charter schools. Board member Gordon Hendry will lead the committee, which represents the state’s first move to give the schools more oversight since a Chalkbeat investigation of Indiana Virtual School last year revealed how state law doesn’t go far enough to hold operators and authorizers of online charter schools accountable.

“I’ve been disappointed with performance (of virtual charters schools),” Hendry said. “Our taxpayers are spending tens of millions of dollars each year to educate the students in virtual charters. I think we owe it to ourselves to ensure we’re doing everything possible to make that happen.”

The resolution proposed by board member Gordon Hendry was approved by an 8-0 vote on Wednesday.

So far, lawmakers have been hesitant to to take decisive action regarding virtual charter schools. This year, the legislature killed three bills that would have regulated charter schools, though they didn’t specifically address virtual charter schools. Seven virtual charter schools are operating in Indiana this year, serving about 12,000 students across the state.

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

Hendry said board members Cari Whicker and Maryanne McMahon, both public school administrators, already offered to be on the committee. It’s not clear how often they would meet.

Three board members, including state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick, were not present to vote.

Hendry and board member B.J. Watts said they wanted board member Byron Ernest, the former head of three virtual charter schools, in the state to weigh-in on the committee’s future conversations because of his experience leading Hoosier Academies, a post he left last fall.

But the schools’ history with the state board has been fraught at times. In 2015, Hoosier Academy Virtual, then one of the largest full-time online charter schools in the state, reached its limit for consecutive F grades. After several hearings over more than two years, the state board finally decided to impose a fairly lenient punishment.

Just a couple months later, the school’s own board voted to close at the end of this year.

Hendry said both local and national problems with online charter schools prompted him to propose the resolution.

“It’s my intent to spend the next four to six months really delving into the issues,” Hendry said. “And making some recommendations for both this board as well as the General Assembly to consider.”

Read more of Chalkbeat’s coverage of online schools.

This story has been corrected to reflect that board member Byron Ernest was present for the vote.

Indiana online schools

Indiana education officials are taking another look at regulating virtual charter schools

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

Nearly five months after Gov. Eric Holcomb called for “immediate attention and action” on Indiana’s subpar online charter schools, state education officials might soon take steps to address them — although they could fall short of the sweeping changes virtual school critics are pushing for.

The Indiana State Board of Education is expected to vote Wednesday on forming a committee that could become Indiana’s first effort in recent years to strengthen virtual charter school oversight. State board member Gordon Hendry would lead the committee. Hendry said it’s the state board’s responsibility to ensure online charter schools are performing and are managed properly, especially when Hoosier tax dollars support them.

He also added that if lawmakers won’t step in and take more immediate, decisive action — which they’ve been hesitant to do — the state board needs to add regulation. The Republican-dominated legislature killed three bills this year that would have regulated charter schools and declined to address virtual charter schools, which are public schools that allow students to attend school online from home.

“I have had my reservations about the poor performance of many of these schools,” said Hendry, a Democrat who has been on the board since 2013. “So I hope that we can draw some attention to the issue, bring in some of our thought leaders both in Indiana and nationally and try to solve some of the problems in a constructive way.”

Hendry said he is unsure if the measure will gain board support, but he’s hopeful. Holcomb’s education policy director, PJ McGrew, has been researching best practices in virtual schools across the country to help Indiana revise its own rules. Adopting new regulations could take at least a year after the committee makes its recommendations to the board.

Critics have called for more sweeping actions to address online charter schools, which — across the nation — suffer from low graduation rates, dismal student test scores, and financial and legal scandals.

A Chalkbeat investigation of Indiana Virtual School last year revealed how state law doesn’t go far enough to hold operators and authorizers of online charter schools accountable. The probe found that Indiana Virtual hired few teachers, posted poor academic performance and had questionable spending and business practices.

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

Since then, the state has also seen new virtual education programs crop up within public school districts. Those online programs are hard to evaluate because districts don’t release separate data for them.

The National Association for Charter School Authorizers recommends that states consider policies specific to virtual schools, such as making enrollment more selective and funding them based on whether students complete classes.

Indiana falls short when it comes to virtual school regulation, according to the association’s most recent report, even as the state is praised for having charter school-friendly laws that the association says still hold schools accountable for performance. For the third year in a row, the group ranked Indiana No. 1 in the nation.

But online charter schools have effectively lobbied Indiana and other states to fend off major regulations.

It’s not yet clear how often the state board’s committee would meet or who would be on it. A majority of the state board would have to vote in favor to form the committee.

The state board has gone back and forth on how to handle virtual charter schools, most notably in its yearslong discussions on Hoosier Academy Virtual, which had reached its limit for consecutive F grades from the state. Ultimately, the board decided to impose a fairly lenient punishment.

The academy was headed by state board member Byron Ernest until he announced his resignation last fall, shortly after the school’s board voted to have the school close this June. Ernest recused himself from discussions and votes pertaining to Hoosier Academies.

State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick has joined Hendry in pushing for tighter accountability for virtual schools.

“Virtual charters are public schools, and the state spends millions of dollars to ensure that the students are receiving the best education they can,” Hendry said. “This is an appropriate topic for us to roll up our sleeves and do some real hard work and make some recommendations.”

Read more of Chalkbeat’s coverage of online schools here.