Colorado taxpayers will spend $100 million this year on online schools that are largely failing their elementary and high school students, state education records and interviews with school officials show.

Laura Johnson, a senior at Florence High School outside Pueblo, left the school for an online program. She was back within a few months. Photo by Joe Mahoney/I-News

The money includes millions in tax dollars that are going to K-12 online schools for students who are no longer there.

The result: While online students fall further behind academically, their counterparts in the state’s traditional public schools are suffering too – because those schools must absorb former online students while the virtual schools and their parent companies get to keep the state funding.

Take the experience of high school senior Laura Johnson.

In the tiny Florence School District outside Pueblo, Johnson was one of 39 students who left Florence High School last year to sign up for online classes with GOAL Academy, one of the largest online schools in Colorado.

Part 1 in a three-part series

  • Education News Colorado and the Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network spent 10 months investigating achievement, turnover and oversight at the state’s largest full-time online programs.
  • Part 1 examines the programs’ high turnover rate. Part 2 analyzes the programs’ poor academic results and Part 3 reveals lax state oversight.
  • Learn more about the data behind the series.

Watch the I-News video

By January, she was back at Florence, disillusioned by the online experience and trying to make up for her lost time in class. She was joined by a dozen of her former online classmates.

Those 39 students who left Florence High School for GOAL represented one of every 10 students in the school. When they left, so did nearly a quarter million dollars in state funding – the equivalent of four to five teachers’ salaries. When a dozen of the students returned to Florence High mid-year, the funding to educate them did not come with them. GOAL got to keep it.

The I-News Network, a Colorado-based in-depth news consortium, and one of its partners, the nonprofit Education News Colorado, spent 10 months investigating what’s really happening with thousands of Colorado K-12 students who try an online school each year.

The investigation used previously unreleased Colorado Department of Education data to document the path of 10,500 students who were enrolled in the 10 largest online schools beginning in 2008. Those students accounted for more than 90 percent of all online students for the 2008-09 school year. The analysis found that in Colorado:

  • Half the online students wind up leaving within a year. When they do, they’re often further behind academically than when they started.
  • Online schools produce three times as many dropouts as they do graduates. One of every eight online students drops out of school permanently – a rate four times the state average.
  • Millions of dollars are going to virtual schools for students who no longer attend online classes.
  • The churn of students in and out of online schools is putting pressure on brick-and-mortar schools, which then must find money in their budgets to educate students who come from online schools mid-year.

“We’re bleeding money to a program that doesn’t work,” State Sen. President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, said after being informed of the I-News/EdNews findings earlier this month. Last week, Shaffer asked the state audit committee for an emergency audit of online schools to be completed before the state legislature meets in January.

Shaffer, who is running for Congress, said the public should know about the findings, especially given the state’s budget woes.

“We spend over $100 million a year on online schools now – in an environment where we’re cutting $200 to $270 million a year from brick-and-mortar schools,” Shaffer said.

Online officials cite student demographics as a key factor in turnover

Officials with the online programs said a variety of factors contribute to the high rate of students leaving the programs.

Learn more

Reasons for the turnover include working with an at-risk student population that sees online learning as their last resort, students who use online as a brief experimentation with a new learning process, and parents not being able to stay home to oversee their children’s studies, said Heather O’Mara, executive director of Hope Online, one of the state’s largest online programs.

“We are all so different, we are serving different audiences and students are enrolling for very different reasons,” O’Mara said. “At Hope, we particularly target kids who are at risk, who have not been academically successful, not only at their previous school, probably several schools before that.”

However, the I-News/EdNews analysis of state data shows that most online school students do not appear to be at-risk students. Only about 120 students of the more than 10,000 entering online programs last year were identified as previous dropouts returning to school, and only 290 entered online schools after spending the prior year in an alternative school for troubled youth.

In addition, most are not struggling academically when they leave their traditional schools. Among the 2,400 online students who had taken a state standardized reading test in a brick-and-motor school the year before, the analysis showed that more than half had scored proficient or better.

The analysis also looked at dropouts – those students who leave school permanently. In Colorado’s online schools, dropouts outnumber graduates by three to one. That’s the reverse of the statewide average, where graduates outnumber dropouts by three to one.

Online enrollment growing seven times faster than statewide average

Online schools are thriving – in Colorado and nationally – using technology to educate students who need flexible scheduling or struggle in conventional classrooms. In Colorado, online schools grew seven times faster than conventional schools last year.

As part of GOAL Academy recruiting efforts, GOAL staff Riley Gallu, left, Christina Tozzie, center, and April Stephen, far right, worked a booth at the Denver County Fair in July. Photo by Joe Mahoney/I-News

Students take classes, usually on computers provided by the online schools, and typically use email or virtual chats to get teacher support. Some schools require a set amount of teacher contact, live or virtual; others do not.

Online schools may be created as district-run programs or they can operate through charters or contracts with a school district or the state Charter School Institute. They can serve students in a single district or across the state.

Colorado’s first online school opened in 1995, with 13 students – mostly from Denver and most on academic probation. It was headquartered in the San Luis Valley’s Monte Vista School District.

Online schools were popular in small rural districts, which typically get higher per-pupil funding. That changed in 2007 and online students are now funded at a flat rate of $6,228, slightly less than average per-pupil funding statewide.

Schools get that set amount of per-pupil funding based on student counts taken at the beginning of October each year. This year, Colorado expects to spend $100 million in state funds for some 18,000 students to attend online schools.

In each of the past three years, however, half the online students have left their schools within a year.

Virtual churn rate tops 50 percent, but plenty of students fill the empty seats

State documents make it difficult to pinpoint exactly when students leave a school. However, a comparison of the October student count data and districts’ end-of-year data shows the number of mid-year transfers was at least 1,000 students a year – and perhaps many more. That means at least $6 million annually went to online schools for students who weren’t there.

Of 10,500 students in the largest online programs in fall 2008, more than half – or 5,600 – left their virtual schools by the fall of 2009. They were more than replaced by 7,400 new recruits by that fall. That new group also experienced high turnover, with more than a third of the students leaving by the end of that school year, the analysis showed.

By October 2010, only about a quarter of the students remained in their same online program after two years.

The student turnover in the programs concerns state educators and lawmakers who fear profit and overzealous student recruitment are taking precedence over educating students.

“There isn’t much effort put into keeping those kids in that school,” Shaffer, the state senate president, said. “It’s all about boosting their numbers for the count date, then forget about the kids.”

Randy DeHoff, who spent 12 years on the State Board of Education before becoming GOAL Academy’s director of strategic planning last November, said online schools need to help students determine who is likely to succeed in an online learning environment.

“One of the things the online schools need to do a better job of in that recruitment and enrollment phase is trying to give a student a real clear idea of what an online program’s about (and) what their responsibilities are,” DeHoff said.

Diana Sirko, deputy commissioner of education in Colorado, said she intends to put together a task force to look at the problems created by skyrocketing online enrollment, especially the high turnover. It could lead the state to ask for legislative changes, she said.

“I think it’s problematic for the student in terms of we know that mobility contributes to a lack of success for students,” Sirko said. “What we hear from some of the school districts who receive children halfway through the year who’ve started in online is there may have been a two or three-month gap as they left one and began the next.”

Students return to traditional schools, minus state funding

The I-News/EdNews analysis looked at test scores for online students who’d previously been in traditional brick-and-mortar schools, and found that scores dropped once students entered online schools. For example, 59 percent had scored proficient or above in reading while in a brick-and-motor school. But after a year in online school, only 51 percent achieved that score.

Top officials at some school districts said they have seen firsthand how the turnover has hurt their students and their finances.

What they said
“We’re not trying to steal kids from districts, we’re there serving the kids that districts either can’t or don’t want to serve.”
Randy DeHoff, GOAL Academy

* * *

“It’s a money-making proposition and they have no problem sending the kids back after the October count. The sales job they get up front, it’s a travesty.”
Don Haddad, St. Vrain district

The St. Vrain School District in Longmont lost 70 students to GOAL last year after heavy recruiting by the online program. St. Vrain Superintendent Don Haddad said GOAL recruiters driving around in recreational vehicles emblazoned with GOAL logos made pitches to high school students during their school lunch hours. GOAL also has storefront operations in many malls along the Front Range.

DeHoff, the former state education board member now at GOAL, said the emphasis on recruiting stems from an effort to reach students not being served by traditional schools.

“We’re not trying to steal kids from districts, we’re there serving the kids that districts either can’t or don’t want to serve,” DeHoff said.

Many of GOAL’s recruited students returned to St. Vrain schools in the middle of the year, behind in school, Haddad said. For many of the returning students, their time in the online program was “wasted,” he said.

“These institutions, what they do is borderline unethical behavior in my mind,” said Haddad, who supports online learning as a tool. “It’s a money-making proposition and they have no problem sending the kids back after the October count. The sales job they get up front, it’s a travesty.”

Ken Crowell, executive director of GOAL Academy, strongly disagreed with Haddad’s assessment.

“Those are really tough words coming from the superintendent,” Crowell said. “I think he is definitely mistaken. That’s unfortunate.”

Haddad said the district lost more than $400,000 in state funding last year to GOAL’s recruitment of students.

Florence High School Principal Steve Wolfe said one in every 10 students at his school left for GOAL online last year after a summer recruiting blitz by a popular former Florence teacher hired by GOAL when his district teaching contract was not renewed. The GOAL recruitment included a barbecue in the town park for prospective students, Wolfe said.

About a dozen of the students came back after Oct. 1, the official state count day to determine per-pupil funding. GOAL got the funding; Florence got the students back. Then the school had to find ways to help them catch up.

Online a boon for some students, “wasted” time for others

Laura Johnson, one of the returning students, said she signed up for GOAL in July after her former science teacher promised free college classes. But she was back at Florence High School by January with no credits earned.

Laura Johnson at a computer between classes at Florence High School. She's trying to boost her grades so colleges won't notice a gap in her transcript from her months at GOAL Academy. Photo by Joe Mahoney/I-News

“I feel like I wasted an entire semester of my life,” said Johnson, now working overtime to boost her grades in hopes the gap in her transcript will be less noticeable to colleges.

She said technology problems kept her from starting classes until September and the social isolation quickly convinced her that online was not a good fit.

“I don’t think it’s healthy for someone to stare at a computer screen for five hours straight,” she said. “I think the most difficult part about it was trying to keep yourself on it.”

However, for other students, the online programs are a boon.

Janette Lopez, 19, is a teen mom who said she dropped out of Pueblo schools because of childcare issues.

Lopez enrolled in the GOAL online program which assigns students to teachers based on their geographic area. It has opened 13 “drop-in centers” statewide where students and teachers can meet.

The model has worked for Lopez, whose son is now 4. Lopez was assigned a teacher who came to her home and who fit classes around a second pregnancy.

“I really wanted my education and I just went for it,” said Lopez, who plans to graduate in December and attend community college. “She was right there with me.”

State’s new online chief concerned by turnover

Some superintendents bristle over the fact that some online programs are sponsored by other school districts that typically receive a portion of their per-pupil funding.

For example, Hope Online is sponsored by the Douglas County School District but few of the districts students use the Hope program, the analysis found. Hope pays Douglas County about $2 million a year for support services such as professional development and special education.

That irks Randy Miller, superintendent of the Eaton School District in Weld County. His district lost a battle to keep a Hope online school out with the argument it wasn’t needed.

“How does Douglas County know more about what is needed in Eaton than our own board? ” Miller said.

Amy Anderson was recently named to oversee innovation and choice, including online schools, for the Colorado Department of Education. She said she understands the usefulness of online programs for students such as Lopez, but worries about the turnover.

“There are other schools that are just churning kids and I don’t feel that is good for kids,” Anderson said. “So how can we prevent that? Those are the challenges that the authorizers of online charters are starting to talk about.”

In the meantime, some Colorado school districts – including both Florence and St. Vrain – have chosen their own way to combat losses to the online schools: They’re starting their own online programs.

Contact Burt Hubbard at bhubbard@inewsnetwork.org and Nancy Mitchell at nmitchell@ednewscolorado.org. Read more about the partnership.

I-News video: Impact of online education on one traditional Colorado high school

Colorado school districts losing the most students to online in 2010-11

Denver Public Schools – Net loss of 1,664 students

  • DPS lost 1,134 students to Hope Online, 273 to Colorado Virtual Academy, 120 to Insight School of Julesburg and 94 to Connections Academy in Mapleton. DPS gained 99 students from other districts for its online school.
  • Those 1,664 students took $10.4 million in per-pupil funding to online schools, based on the state’s funding of $6,228 per online student in 2010-11.
  • DPS had the highest number of students transfer back to its traditional schools – 529 students transferred from online to DPS between Oct. 2008 and Oct. 2009 while 484 transferred between Oct. 2009 and Oct. 2010.

Aurora Public Schools – Net loss of 1,029 students

  • Aurora lost 474 students to Hope Online, 197 to Colorado Virtual Academy, 128 to Connections Academy and 118 to Insight.
  • Those 1,029 students took $6.4 million in per-pupil funding to online schools, based on the state’s funding of $6,228 per online student in 2010-11.
  • Aurora had 256 online students transfer from online to its brick-and-mortar schools between Oct. 2008 and Oct. 2009 and 274 transferred between Oct. 2009 and Oct. 2010.

Jefferson County Public Schools – Net loss of 925 students

  • Jeffco lost 415 students to Colorado Virtual Academy, 297 to Hope Online, 150 to Insight and 67 to Connections. Jeffco lost 1,081 students overall to online program and gained 156 students for its online school.
  • Those 925 students took $5.8 million in per-pupil funding to online schools, based on the state’s funding of $6,228 per online student in 2010-11.
  • Jeffco saw 274 online students transfer to its brick-and-mortar schools between Oct. 2008 and Oct. 2009 and 303 students transferred between Oct. 2009 and Oct. 2010.

Colorado Springs District 11 – Net loss of 894 students

  • D-11 lost 310 students to Colorado Virtual Academy, 170 to Connections, 158 to GOAL and 70 to Insight. D-11 gained 65 students for its online school.
  • Those 894 students took $5.6 million in per-pupil funding to online schools, based on the state’s funding of $6,228 per online student in 2010-11.
  • D-11 had 130 students move from online to brick-and-mortar schools between Oct. 2008 and Oct. 2009 and 188 transferred from Oct. 2009 and Oct. 2010.

Pueblo City Schools – Net loss of 684 students

  • Pueblo lost 413 students to GOAL, 124 to COVA, 60 to Hope and 29 to Insight.
  • Those 684 students took $4.3 million in per-pupil funding to online schools, based on the state’s funding of $6,228 per online student in 2010-11.
  • Pueblo saw 112 online students transfer to its brick-and-mortar schools between Oct. 2008 and Oct. 2009 and 119 between Oct. 2009 and Oct. 2010.

Snapshots of the state’s five largest online programs in 2010-11

1. Colorado Virtual Academy – 5,034 students in grades K-12

  • Authorizer – COVA, as it’s known, is a charter school overseen by the Adams 12 Five Star School District. The charter school board contracts with K12 Inc. of Virginia to operate the school.
  • Student demographics – 22% minority, 19% poverty, 10% special needs, 1% English language learners.
  • Student achievement – 61% of students are proficient or advanced in reading, with a median growth percentile of 36; 39% of students are proficient or advanced in math, with a median growth percentile of 29.

2. Hope Online – 2,851 students in grades K-12

  • Authorizer – Hope is a charter school now overseen by the Douglas County School District. It previously was overseen by the Vilas School District in southeastern Colorado.
  • Student demographics – 79% minority, 63% poverty, 26% English language learners, 8% special needs
  • Student achievement – 36% of students are proficient or advanced in reading, with a median growth percentile of 43; 21% of student are proficient or advanced in math, with a median growth percentile of 39.

3. Insight School of Colorado – 1,527 students in grades 9-12

  • Authorizer – Insight is a contract school overseen by the Julesburg School District in northeastern Colorado. Ownership of Insight has changed twice in the past year – it currently is operated by K12 Inc. of Virginia.
  • Student demographics – 23% minority, 9% poverty, 6% special needs, less than 1% English language learners.
  • Student achievement – 52% of students are proficient or advanced in reading, with a median growth percentile of 39; 7% of students are proficient or advanced in math, with a median growth percentile of 30.

4. Connections Academy – 1,372 students in grades K-12

  • Authorizer – Connections is a contract school overseen by the Mapleton School District in Adams County. Connections is part of a national online chain based in Baltimore.
  • Student demographics – 40% poverty, 23% minority, 9% special needs, 1% English language learners.
  • Student achievement – 69% of students are proficient or advanced in reading, with a median growth percentile of 40; 37% of students are proficient or advanced in math, with a median growth percentile of 35.

5. GOAL Academy – 1,356 students in grades 8-12

  • Authorizer – GOAL is a charter school overseen by the state Charter School Institute. GOAL was initially part of the Cesar Chavez Schools Network in Pueblo.
  • Student demographics – 59% minority, 35% poverty, 11% special needs, 2% English language learners.
  • Student achievement – 38% of students are proficient or advanced in reading, with a median growth percentile of 30; 6% of students are proficient or advanced in math, with a median growth percentile of 21.

*Source – Colorado Department of Education pupil membership reports, state test results and the 2011 annual online schools report. Poverty refers to students eligible for federal meal assistance while special needs refers to students with Individualized Education Plans. The median growth percentile is an indicator of student academic progress – the statewide average median growth percentile is 50.

About the EdNews/I-News partnership

  • Nancy Mitchell covered K-12 education for the Colorado Springs Gazette and the Rocky Mountain News for a decade before joining Education News Colorado in 2009. Burt Hubbard is a veteran journalist specializing in data analysis who has worked for the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post. He also teaches data analysis to graduate journalism students at the University of Colorado. Hubbard, along with Joe Mahoney, who shot the video and photos for this series, and series editor Laura Frank formed the non-profit Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network after the closure of the Rocky Mountain News.
  • Mitchell and Hubbard have previously collaborated on data-intensive education projects. In 2007, they were part of the team behind Leaving to Learn, a five-part series examining why one in four school-aged children living in Denver do not attend the city’s public schools and where they choose to go instead. In 2005, they worked on Early Exit: Denver’s Graduation Gap, which followed a cohort of Denver eighth-graders through graduation – or not. The project won the national Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism, which honors reporting on children and families.