These Indiana students overcame long odds to graduate from an online school

PHOTO: Shelby Mullis
Angela Freel poses with her daughters, Dasani Freel and Cazariah Haskins, outside Old National Center. Dasani Freel and Haskins graduated Monday from Indiana Connections Academy.

For Angela Freel, “the struggle is over” now that her daughters have graduated after a long search for the right high school.

“A lot of hard work, and here is the reward,” Angela Freel said.

What she wanted was a more convenient, stable alternative to a traditional school for her two daughters — a place where they could excel at their own pace without the worries of bullying and meticulous schedules.

Serving in the military since 1999, both as a member of the United States Army and the Louisiana National Guard, Angela Freel moved with her family often. After settling in Indiana, the single mother of two enrolled her daughters in Indiana Connections Academy, a free online K-12 education provider.

Online charter schools are an increasingly popular alternative for students across the nation who aren’t thriving in a traditional classroom setting or are searching for more flexibility. But as Chalkbeat has previously reported, most students don’t graduate from these schools.

But supporters note that for some students, including the 497 who graduated from Connections on Monday, online schools do work.

Angela Freel’s daughters, Dasani Freel and Cazariah Haskins, are two of 497 students who graduated Monday from Indiana Connections Academy. That’s an estimated graduation rate of 52 percent, according to school officials.

Last year, the school’s graduation rate was 49.5 percent, compared to 87.2 percent of students at schools across the state that year.

Angela Freel’s family agrees that the path to the finish line involved a lot of perseverance and initiative — a common theme among this year’s graduates.

“You just have to adapt,” said Dasani Freel, who is graduating a year early. “You do what you’re supposed to do when you’re supposed to do it. Be disciplined. Have the ‘I need to get this done right then and there’ attitude.”

Angela Freel said the school was extremely convenient for her family. Freel said she held her daughters accountable for completing assignments on time and studying for exams.

“For any parent that wants their kid to go to school without all the extras you have to put up with in a brick-and-mortar, this is perfect,” she said, referring to her experience with the online school.”

Both Dasani Freel and Haskins plan to start their higher education careers at Ivy Tech Community College, where Freel will study nursing and Haskins hopes to become a certified surgical technician. The two said they will continue their studies at other schools in the future.

“It feels really good to be at this point,” Haskins said. “I’m finished, and all the hard work has paid off.”

Richard Ostergaard, 18, started his journey with the virtual school at 13 years old after missing more than 60 days of school each year due to sinus infections and related illnesses.

Ostergaard has since graduated at the top of his class as valedictorian.

“I had to take a lot of initiative,” he said. “There are people who go, ‘Oh yeah, online school — it’s going to be easy.’ They’re wrong.”

Ostergaard compared his online experience to college courses — listening to live hour-long lectures, self-teaching, and retaining the knowledge through exams and quizzes.

“I am much more confident going into college because you have to have that initiative to get through college,” he said. “In a lot of high schools, you’re pushed to get through high school. In Indiana Connections Academy, you still have that gradual push, but they’re much less likely to pass you through grades even if you haven’t actually done all the work.”

Ostergaard will study mechanical engineering at Tennessee Technological Institute.

Yesra Almalahi, 18, left her traditional public school after seventh grade in search of a safer alternative to a brick-and-mortar school.  That’s when she discovered Indiana Connections Academy.

“There are so many shootings and many other incidents that occur in public schools now so transferring to an online school makes it more safe,” she said.

Since then, Almalahi has completed her school work at home.

Almalahi said the transition was not easy, but she said she made it work through determination and parents’ support. Now she is preparing for classes at Indiana University Fort Wayne.

“I feel accomplished and so excited for this new chapter of my life,” she said. “It was difficult in the start because you make a big choice of choosing to teach yourself over someone teaching you.”

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?”