Decision time

Indiana officials opt to punish Hoosier Academy Virtual and let it stay open. They told the long-failing school to do better. Again.

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
The Indiana State Board of Education discussed Hoosier Academy Virtual Charter School at its meeting today, as well as at the beginning of the year (pictured).

After two years of debate, Hoosier Virtual Academy Charter School escaped closure by Indiana education officials on Wednesday but was penalized with a reduction in fees to authorizer Ball State University and a cap on enrollment.

Except for siblings of current students, the Indiana State Board of Education voted to freeze the school’s enrollment immediately. The board also approved a reduction in the fee that Ball State can accept, cutting it from 3 percent to 1 percent of Hoosier Academy’s state funding. The school is operated by for-profit K12 Inc.

The school — among the largest online providers in Indiana — has dealt with years of low test scores and F grades from the state, which triggered its first state board hearing in March of 2015. This decision has been a long time coming — a fact that didn’t escape state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick, who said action needed to happen much earlier. She also said the state should reconsider requirements for how involved authorizers need to be.

“I think it’s unfortunate we’re at this point where we’re having to make this type of decision,” McCormick said. “The authorizer should have gotten aggressive very early and made a decision one way or the other so the state board wouldn’t have been in this situation.”

Read: The broken promise of online schools

Wednesday marked the fourth board appearance in two years for the school. Over that time, the school has continued to receive F grades from the state, admit students and pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to Ball State to authorize it.

The tone of the discussion overall was far more tense and contentious than prior hearings. State board members challenged Hoosier Academy administrators, as well as representatives from K12 and Ball State, to justify why improvement was taking so long and why conversations about improvement seemed to be in such early stages.

Last year, the university collected about $450,000 for overseeing Hoosier Academy, an amount determined by school enrollment. According to the most recent information available, 2,850 students across Indiana currently attend Hoosier Academy Virtual, down from the 3,300 reported by the state earlier this year. The network as a whole, which includes two other virtual and hybrid schools, enrolls about 1,000 additional kids.

One of the biggest concerns among board members was that the school’s curriculum, furnished primarily by K12, is not fully aligned to Indiana’s academic standards. Stuart Udell, CEO of K12 Inc., said Indiana’s changing state academic standards has made it difficult to ensure everything matches up correctly.

“We’ve had a lot of change nationally,” Udell said. “We’ve been working judiciously since we’ve been here on filling in the gaps.”

Yet Cari Whicker and other board members, including McCormick, pointed out that Indiana teachers at every school have been expected to adjust to the many changes in standards and state tests.

“I don’t have the luxury of saying there’s been a lot of change and my grades are not my grades,” said Whicker, a sixth-grade public school teacher in Huntington. “Every teacher in the state of Indiana had to adapt.”

Virtual school leaders argue their poor performance is because they serve a challenging population of students, including those who frequently switch schools, and come to school far behind grade level. In fact, every online school in the state that tested students in 2016 received an F grade, and most have fewer students passing ISTEP than their traditional counterparts.

K12 officials said a new Indiana law passed this year that would allow virtual charter schools to expel students for low participation would make a difference. Currently, virtual schools can’t force students to attend. But it’s hard to see how that allows new flexibility. According to WFYI Public Media, Hoosier Virtual expelled more than 800 students in the past three years.

Although many parents and students traveled to the meeting in Evansville to speak passionately about their positive experiences with the school, Board member Gordon Hendry said it was important to note that that’s not the case for most Hoosier Academy students.

“There’s a whole heck of a lot of students where it’s not working, and the state is spending a ton of money on failure,” Hendry said. “It is on Ball State, but it’s also on K12. They are running the school.”

Ball State University is required to come back to the board next June to ask about renewing the school’s charter. Board members agreed they wanted to see major changes at that point.

“A year from now if there isn’t dramatic change, I’m going to have a pretty different position,” Hendry said.

 

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.