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

Facing state scrutiny, Indiana charter school steps back from virtual plan

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Indiana Agriculture and Technology School's farm campus is in southern Indiana only a few miles from the Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson district office in Morgan County.

An Indiana charter school is backing off its unconventional plan to open a statewide virtual school with a farm campus following scrutiny from state officials over its oversight model.

In May, a Chalkbeat investigation examined concerns about whether Indiana Agriculture and Technology School’s plan to be overseen by a school district exploited a loophole in state law.

Following the investigation, the Indiana State Board of Education told Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson schools in an email exchange obtained by Chalkbeat through a public records request that only the state charter board or a university could authorize a statewide virtual charter school.

Now, a month before it is set to open, the school says it will instead incorporate more in-person learning so it can launch as a brick-and-mortar charter school, not a virtual school.

“After examining our program it was clear to all parties that we do not meet the technical definition of a virtual school,” said Allan Sutherlin, the school’s founder and board president, in a statement to Chalkbeat.

Sutherlin did not immediately respond to questions about how students recruited from across the state will participate in in-person lessons and access the farm campus.

When asked about the oversight issue in March, state board officials told Chalkbeat that they didn’t have the authority to review charter contracts. Indiana law doesn’t specifically prohibit or allow districts to oversee statewide virtual schools, but lawmakers say districts were not intended to have that power.

But in a May 31 letter, Tim Schultz, general counsel for the state board, told the school district to “address this issue as quickly as possible as failure to do so violates Indiana law.”

Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson Superintendent Timothy Edsell contended the district was in compliance with the law, disputing the state board’s interpretation.

He said the district is allowed to authorize the school because the school leases land within the district’s boundaries. He also argued that the portion of state law that addresses who can authorize virtual charter schools isn’t restrictive — it says virtual charters “may” apply with a statewide authorizer, Edsell said, not that they “shall” or “must.”

“There is legal authority to support our collective actions and all legal requirements have been followed,” Edsell wrote in a follow-up letter to state board staff.

But then, on June 22, the agriculture school changed course. Despite originally applying for its charter as a “statewide virtual school,” it informed the state that the school would instead be opening as a brick-and-mortar charter school with a so-called “blended-learning” model.

The school plans to mix online instruction and in-person visits to regional sites and the school’s farm campus in southern Indiana, according to documents Marsh provided to the state. That will include weekly in-person learning sessions at the farm campus or elsewhere, monthly farm campus visits, dual credit opportunities with the Central 9 Career Center and Ivy Tech Community College, and internships and work-based learning with local partners.

The move was a significant change from the school’s original plans. Although school officials emphasized hands-on experiences students would receive, they told Chalkbeat earlier this year that the farm visits weren’t mandatory and would be occasional. Through social media marketing, the school has advertised itself for months as a “real virtual school.”

A Facebook ad for Indiana Agriculture and Technology School from July 2.

And in March, Keith Marsh, the school’s academic director, confirmed with the Indiana Department of Education that the school was virtual.

Even with the change in plans, the school says 49 percent of a student’s schooling will occur online. The state defines a virtual charter school as providing more than 50 percent of its instruction online.

As a traditional charter school, the Indiana Agriculture and Technology School is also now entitled to an increase in state funding — full state tuition support instead of the 90 percent virtual charter schools receive. The school has so far enrolled about 100 students.

It’s unclear why the school decided to make the change to blended-learning when it did. But on June 29, after the school confirmed its new model with the state, Schultz, the state board’s general counsel, told district superintendent Edsell that the school’s charter would have been invalid if it had remained a virtual school.

Sutherlin and Marsh declined interview requests through a spokeswoman.

In addressing the school’s new model, Schultz wrote that the district “is responsible for ensuring that every charter school it authorizes is complying with all applicable federal and state laws.”

Schultz wrote that the state board “has no mechanism to independently verify” that the school is operating according to its new plan. The Indiana Department of Education also does not monitor whether charter schools follow rules set by their authorizers or the state, a spokeswoman said.

State Rep. Bob Behning, the House Education Committee chairman, said the state board’s review showed “due diligence.” He also said the law would likely have to be clarified.

“I was concerned and made it very clear that I thought a local school corporation could not authorize a statewide virtual (school), so I’m glad that they’re now in compliance,” Behning said. “My guess is there will be changes to our virtual charter law anyway in terms of some different parameters we might put in, so we’ll hopefully clean that up at the same time.”

Virtual charter schools have drawn scrutiny in both Indiana and Washington, D.C. A state board committee met for the first time last month to explore changes that could be made to state law to improve the schools, which have records of poor academic performance in Indiana. Additionally, lawmakers at a Congressional committee hearing later that same week raised questions about the schools.

Find more coverage of Indiana’s online schools.

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.