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

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.