ONLINE SCHOOLS

Low participation and poor attendance could get a student expelled from an online school in new House proposal

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A new House proposal would allow virtual charter schools, which conduct classes almost exclusively online, to remove students showing low participation and poor attendance.

One virtual school authorizer believes this proposal would help solve two problems that virtual school operators believe are especially relevant to their students: high mobility and challenging learning issues.

“What we’re trying to get at is refining their attendance policy,” said Bob Marra, who directs charter school efforts at Ball State University, the group that oversees Hoosier Academies and Indiana Connections Academy. “How do you really measure this in the virtual environment?”

READ: Find more coverage of Indiana online schools here.

Marra’s schools are the two largest online school providers in the state.

House bill 1382, authored by Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, offers no guidance as to what that policy might look like, but does say charter authorizers are responsible for making sure the school adheres to it and doesn’t abuse it.

“If you’re in a classroom and the kids are not engaged and going to sleep, you have the ability to tell that kid to go down to the principal,” Behning said. “If you’re in a virtual classroom, how do you even know the kid’s engaged? Because you’re not in the room with them there’s no way to do it.”

But Rep. Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis, strongly opposes the use of virtual schools, and doesn’t believe — however attendance rules might change — that they can work well for students.

“How do we know the student is ‘engaged’ or ‘attending’? We don’t, and so we’re having a debate about how we can enforce the requirement in a context where I think you can’t enforce the requirement,” DeLaney said.

Teachers in online schools take attendance in their daily or weekly lectures, but they can’t always physically see students.

Virtual schools typically perform poorly on state tests, which some school leaders argue is because they serve a challenging population of students, including those who frequently move and switch schools, come to school far behind grade level and have other learning difficulties that make them more difficult to educate.

They also say they struggle to keep students engaged and can’t easily enforce attendance policies. But online school critics say these problems also occur in many of the state’s struggling urban and rural schools.

The proposal in HB 1382 would allow virtual schools to remove a student as long as “adequate notice” is given to the students and parents, and parents have a chance to explain the absence before the student is removed, if necessary.

Indiana state law is ambiguous on when schools are allowed to expel students, saying kids can be expelled for “student misconduct” or “substantial disobedience.” Neither phrase is explicitly defined, and school districts have interpreted them differently.

A Bloomington high school says in its student code of conduct that expulsion or suspension could result for tardiness or absences. But Indianapolis Public Schools’ code of conduct doesn’t advise removing kids from school for those same offenses.

In general, DeLaney thinks the bill cuts too much slack to charter schools.

He referred to another provision in the bill that would change how the Indiana State Board of Education handles authorizers who want to renew charters for schools that have failed for four years in a row. The bill includes an existing part of state law that requires the board to consider a charter school’s student population before it makes a decision to close or renew the failing school.

There is no similar language in Indiana state law regarding what to consider before closing a traditional public school.

“I don’t know why we are creating a list of excuses for failure,” DeLaney said.

Charter “schools have promised us that this is exactly what they can deal with. We’re saying the very thing they’re supposed to cure is an obstacle to their success.”

Much of the rest of the language in the bill makes clarifications to existing law, essentially ensuring that before an authorizer can renew a charter on a failing school, it must first go to the state board to explain why the school should remain open.

Previously, that timeline was more ambiguous, and some charter authorizers renewed their schools before being asked to consult with the state board, technically violating the law. James Betley, executive director of the Indiana Charter School Board, said this bill rights the contradictory language.

“What the change does is it makes the timeline make sense,” Betley said.

Marra said he’ll be keeping close watch over how the “student engagement” policies play out so students aren’t removed without cause.

“That’s what we want to be able to look at,” Marra said last week at the bill’s first hearing. “How does (an engagement policy) get implemented? We’ll be monitoring.”

Behning said the engagement policy, in particular, still had details that would need to be worked out, but he thought it was a good first step toward trying to address problems virtual schools have reported. The bill passed out of the House Education Committee on Tuesday, and is up for its final hearing in the House this week.

“I’m not saying it’s a perfect fix,” Behning said. “It begins a discussion about how do you make sure that these students are really getting the most out of their educational experience.”

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.