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 online charter schools face scrutiny at Congressional committee hearing

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

The chronic low performance of Indiana’s virtual charter schools captured national attention Wednesday in a Congressional committee hearing on the value of charter schools.

U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, a Democrat from Oregon, criticized the failed promises of online charter schools across the country, citing their low graduation rates and lack of instructional supports — and she called out Indiana’s lowest-performing online school by name.

Indiana “had Indiana Virtual School that graduated a lower percentage of students than almost every other high school in the state,” Bonamici said.

She also referenced a Chalkbeat story about prominent Republican lawmakers calling for the state to intervene in the dismal performance of online schools.

Her criticism was in stark contrast to testimony minutes earlier from Indiana Rep. Jim Banks, a Republican who praised charter schools for creating more opportunities and lifting academic achievement. He touted Indiana’s charter school laws as a model for other states, though the national reports he referenced have also noted Indiana’s blind spots when it comes to online charter schools.

But Bonamici said advocates lauded charter schools while ignoring the problems of online charter schools. As Chalkbeat has reported, four of the state’s virtual charter schools received F ratings from the state in 2017.

“Shouldn’t there be stronger oversight to make sure these schools are actually serving students, rather than focusing on churning profits?” she asked.

A Chalkbeat investigation highlighted how Indiana Virtual School graduated few students, hired few teachers, and entered into contracts with the school founder’s for-profit company — while collecting tens of millions of dollars in state funding.

Nina Rees, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said states should better regulate virtual charter schools because of their chronic academic problems, but she still defended online schools, which attract students who might not thrive in traditional brick-and-mortar schools.

“You don’t want to completely get rid of them, because for some students, these are the only choices available to them,” Rees said.

Indiana online schools

4 takeaways from Indiana’s first review of its troubled virtual charter schools

PHOTO: PeopleImages/Getty

At its inaugural meeting Tuesday, a group of Indiana State Board of Education members puzzled over how far they could go to try to fix the many problems facing the state’s virtual charter schools — and it turns out, they have more power than they might have thought.

Tim Schultz, the state board’s general counsel, said the committee — and by extension, the full state board — can explore whatever policy areas it wishes.

“The only restriction on this is the board’s imagination,” Schultz said.

That may come as a surprise to some onlookers, since state officials have created few regulations governing virtual charter schools that receive millions in taxpayer dollars but post disappointing academic results.

Read: In the Wild West of virtual learning, an Indiana charter school is opening in an unlikely place — a farm

The only board-drafted rules in place, written in 2010 in the early days of online charter schools, mostly contained definitions and guidance on counting students for funding purposes. It amounted to two printed pages, in contrast to the dozens of pages the board has devoted to other issues such as A-F accountability grades and dropout recovery, said Gordon Hendry, a state board member and the chairman of the committee looking into online charter schools.

So it is clear, Hendry said, that policymakers have more work to do.

One area where the board might need some help from lawmakers is state funding. The board can’t unilaterally decide to change how much money virtual charter schools get per student, for example, since that is specified in the state’s school funding formula.

A critical area to watch will be in what — if anything — the state board can do to address how virtual charter schools are overseen, which lawmakers attempted to take on unsuccessfully earlier this year.

Here are four takeaways from the group’s discussion:

Indiana is not the only state struggling to shore up online charter schools — but other states have made more progress

Schultz presented numerous examples of possible policy changes from other states that Indiana could adopt or use as a jumping-off point. For example, Colorado and Florida more closely track how much students are participating in their online work and how often they are attending online classes.

Minnesota even requires written parental approval for a student to enroll in a virtual program, Schultz said. That move could make it easier for schools to engage with parents right off the bat, and help them understand more about what virtual learning requires and how it differs from a traditional school.

“Many states are pursuing a much more active involvement on the front end,” Schultz said. “It’s not uniform across the board, but a number of states have now taken the position that enrollment does not occur until a student has gone through orientation, or some form of that.”

Schultz also pointed to how Florida requires virtual charter schools provide computer equipment for students poor enough to qualify for subsidized meals. In New Mexico, he said, students get help accessing assistive technology, which are devices or tools that can make using computers easier for students with special needs.

In South Carolina, students are required to have 25 percent of their instruction be taught live, while other states put limits on how high student-to-teacher ratios can reach.

All of these steps could improve student performance at Indiana’s virtual charter schools, where more than 13,000 student attend school, state board staff said. In 2017, every full-time virtual charter school in the state received an F grade from the state, and despite small improvements from the prior year, most schools had fewer students passing English and math exams than the state average.

“We’re not alone in this,” Schultz said. “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”

Indiana doesn’t have rules for virtual charter schools on even some of the basic issues

Board members were surprised to learn online schools lack regulations around teachers. Indiana has no limits — for virtual charter schools or any other schools, for that matter — on how large class sizes can be or on how many teachers schools must hire. That means student-to-teacher ratios can vary widely.

The state also hasn’t clarified, specifically in regards to virtual schools, whether teachers have to be Indiana residents on top of having an Indiana teaching license.

“I just am shocked that we have questions about these things,” said board member Cari Whicker.

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

On average across the U.S., public schools tend to have one teacher for every 16 students, while virtual schools have one teacher for every 45, as reported by the National Education Policy Center.

In Indiana, virtual charter schools’ ratios run the gamut, according to 2017 data from the state presented Tuesday, but averaged at about one teacher for every 60 students. Here’s how it broke down in specific schools:

  • Indiana Connections Academy: One teacher for every 29 students
  • Insight School of Indiana: One teacher for every 41 students
  • Hoosier Academy Virtual Charter School: One teacher for every 49 students
  • Indiana Virtual School: One teacher for every 123 students

Students who tend to enroll in virtual charter schools need a lot more support across the board

Ron Sandlin, the state board’s director of school performance and transformation, pointed out that Indiana’s virtual charter school students typically spend less than two years in an online school, and when they get there, they’ve usually already spent several years in high school.

So it’s not just incumbent on virtual schools to improve of student performance — the state needs to ensure students have the support they need before they get there, too.

Falling behind grade level before transferring to an online school could be one reason why the schools’ state test scores and graduation rates are particularly low. If students come in behind grade level and are very transient, it doesn’t set them up to do well on tests or finish school on time.

Next steps: Data, data, and more data

Hendry, Whicker, and the third committee member, Maryanne McMahon all had areas they wanted to explore as the committee continues to meet monthly.

Hendry said he’d like more information on virtual education programs that aren’t charter schools. That could include a rural district that, as Chalkbeat reported, is pulling in hundreds of students from across the state with its new online program.

Whicker said she wanted more information from authorizers, the entities that oversee virtual charter schools.

“What it sounds like is in Indiana, they have the freedom to set their own policies,” Whicker said. She was curious about what current authorizers were doing and how they make decisions on how to monitor schools.

And McMahon said she’s interested in seeing success stories: Where is virtual education working?

All agreed there was still a lot of work to do. Board member David Freitas, who is not on the committee but attended the meeting, said policymakers have a big responsibility ahead of them.

“It’s sort of like drinking out of a fire hydrant — at this point there are so many issues,” he said. “Where do we start?”