Series

Why online learning works for these Indiana kids

PHOTO: Courtesy of Indiana Connections Academy
A student at Indiana Connections Academy completes schoolwork.

One in a Chalkbeat series about virtual schools.

Online schools offer opportunities that can be life-changing for children who need flexible learning, even though the schools have broadly demonstrated a poor track record in Indiana so far.

Indiana Connections Academy, along with every online school in the state that tested students in 2016, received an F grade from the state last month.

But the Neiers and Taylors, who have been with Indiana Connections Academy since it opened in 2010, are happy with their choice. They said the self-paced nature of virtual learning, the lack of social distractions and the ability to learn anytime, anywhere, have given their kids the environment they need to be successful.

The families — who are from Franklin and related — learned about virtual schooling when Stephanie Neier, a mother of five, enrolled her kids after hearing rave reviews of Connections Academy from a friend. Her oldest son has autism, and traditional high school wasn’t working for him, she said.

“I don’t mind the public education curriculum,” Neier said. “It was more about meeting each of my individual kids where they are in their education and what they need.”

Other children in the families struggle with learning disabilities or chronic health issues and appreciate the freedom to learn when and where they want

Students from Connections Academy, the second largest online school provider in Indiana with 4,032 students, talked with Chalkbeat about why virtual school works for them.

Excerpts from interviews have been edited for length and clarity. Editor’s notes are in italics.

 

How online school compares to traditional school

Demetri Taylor, 11th grade: The comparison to brick-and-mortar school is the attention you receive. At a brick-and-mortar school, teachers have a whole class to deal with at one time. Here, you can easily contact a teacher and they can do one-on-ones with you so you can get the help you need.

(Online schools generally serve more students in a virtual “classroom,” but the software they use allows students to speak privately with teachers during lectures, as well as contact them easily outside formal class time.)

READ: Find more coverage of Indiana online schools here.

The time is also a great thing at Connections. I take one class at Franklin High School, so that allows me to play sports — I take tennis. I have several friends that are always trying to get caught up because you only have so much time (during the traditional school day) to get caught up. In a virtual setting, you don’t have that problem because your workspace is very flexible. So if you have an internship, you can work around that.

Wyatt Taylor, 11th grade: Here, you can really take it step by step and just learn at your own pace. What I like about the school is that what effort you put into the school is the effort that’s going to come back at you.

Tori Taylor, ninth grade: There aren’t social cliques in my school. There isn’t a specific group you have to belong to — we’re just all one big group. You don’t have the “populars” the “geeks” the “nerds” or whatever. You have just one group, and kids socialize with whoever they want.

What they like best about virtual school

Tori: Virtual school is definitely easier on me because I’m dyslexic, and I have ADD. When I was in (traditional) public school, I couldn’t focus on anything, and I didn’t get any help with my dyslexia.

(Tori said she didn’t receive special education services in public school, and now that she’s at Connections Academy, she has a learning plan that address her disabilities and receives extra tutoring for her dyslexia.)

There’s not as many distractions — you’re at home, and you know the people you are working with, and you know what they’re going to do. Even if you get behind, you have opportunities throughout the year to catch up. Now my dyslexia is way better. I can actually read a book now.

Abigail Taylor, seventh grade: Math is not really my strongest subject, and before I came to this school, I just about flunked third grade. This school has helped me get my math better, and my knowledge in math is actually probably higher than it’s ever been.

Ashleigh Neier, 10th grade: We have field trips that we go on that the school sponsors. Or, my mom will put something up on a Facebook page and a group of us will get together and we’ll all go out for lunch one week, or we’ll go to someone’s house and play games one night. We build these friendships through those things and field trips.

What they’d change about online school

Wyatt: I just recently got into student council, and one thing I’m trying to do right now is get more interaction between students outside of the live lessons. Maybe a live lesson for kids to hang out and chat. Definitely I would try and get more social activity between each of the students.

Tori: Back when I first started virtual school, it was rough, and I wanted to go back just because the socialization wasn’t the same. After I got through that, it was nice because then we were in fifth grade and we went on a ton of field trips. Once I realized you could actually socialize with people, I wouldn’t change a thing.

(Virtual schools can not only have their own student government, but they also have clubs and other social and academic activities that are unique to their schools and help them connect with other kids and families in their communities.)

What they want to do when they grow up:

Wyatt: I’m pretty sure I’m going to go into the Air Force. I feel like this is a really good school — it gives you the time to prepare to the college you really want to go to.

Demetri: I’m thinking of going to IUPUI and becoming an American Sign Language interpreter, and after that hopefully work for (Luna Language Services). My friend’s mom works up there, and I job shadowed up there. (IUPUI is the merged campus of Indiana University and Purdue University in Indianapolis.)

Ashleigh: I want to also go to IUPUI and do ASL interpreting and get a pediatrics physical therapy degree and work with hippotherapy — therapy on a horse (for kids with special needs). My brother did hippotherapy, and I went and watched a couple sessions. I love working with special needs kids — that’s one of my passions, and I love horses, and so it’s kind of like the best of both worlds.

Tori: All I do is listen to music, (so I’m considering studying) music. I also love horses, and I’ve looked into horse training. I want to go to IUPUI to get my veterinary degree.

Abigail: I at least want to try to become a singer … or a crime investigator because investigating crimes just has always inspired me.

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.”