Indiana online schools

After years of failing grades, Hoosier Academy Virtual will close in June

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Ball State University oversees all three Hoosier Academies schools.

The Hoosier Academy school board voted Tuesday night to not renew the charter of its full-time online school after months of scrutiny from the state, dropping enrollment, and poor academic performance.

Hoosier Academy Virtual Charter School will close after June 30. The board will continue to operate its two other schools, the hybrid Hoosier Academy-Indianapolis, where students learn online and in-person at a brick-and-mortar school, and Insight School of Indiana, which is geared toward students with more intensive needs.

John Marske, board chairman, told Chalkbeat in an email that the board did not think the school could meet the requirements to get its charter renewed. The school is authorized by Ball State University and operated by the for-profit K12 Inc.

“If we were to seek renewal, we would have had to submit a renewal application by October 1, 2017,” Marske said. He noted that “the Board has seen evidence of significant improvement at Hoosier Virtual,” but didn’t feel that academics were strong enough “to pass the rigors of a new charter application process.”

The school’s leader, Byron Ernest, also an Indiana State Board of Education member, did not immediately return requests for comment. Bob Marra, who directs charter school efforts at Ball State, said he was not immediately available to speak.

Marske said the board is now focused on alerting and addressing questions from the families of the 2,065 students enrolled in grades K-12 and its almost 100 teachers.

“Our intention is to give our families and teachers as many options as possible,” Marske said. “Meanwhile we are also focused on improving results of the Hoosier Hybrid school in Indianapolis, as well as the Hoosier Insight school.”

According to minutes from Hoosier Academy’s July board meeting (the most recent posted by the school), Hoosier Virtual saw a drop of about 800 students from its enrollment of 2,867 a year ago. The Insight School enrolled 593 as of July, and the hybrid school enrolled 199.

Hoosier Academy Virtual escaped closure in May when the Indiana State Board of Education voted to allow the school to remain open despite years of poor test scores and F grades. The board also decided not to allow them to enroll new students and reduced fees paid to Ball State to authorize the school.

This is the full text of the resolution the board passed last night at its monthly meeting:

 

HOOSIER ACADEMY, INC.

Resolution Regarding Charter Renewal – Virtual Charter School

Resolution No. 2017 – [ ]

WHEREAS, in 2016 Ball State University Office of Charter Schools (the “Sponsor”) reauthorized Hoosier Academy, Inc. (the “Corporation”) to operate the Hoosier Academy Virtual Charter School (“Virtual School”) for an additional two year charter term, and the Corporation and Sponsor entered into a Charter agreement (“Charter Agreement”) for a Charter term ending June 30, 2018; and

WHEREAS, pursuant to the Charter Agreement and the Sponsor policies, if the Charter has not been renewed and the Corporation wishes to renew the Charter, the Corporation must initiate the renewal process by filing a written request for renewal with the Executive Director of the Sponsor no later than October 1 in the last academic year before expiration of the then current term of the Charter; and

WHEREAS, the Board of Directors, with input from its educational management company, K12 Classroom, LLC, and the Head of Schools for the Hoosier Academy Virtual Charter School, has continued to implement various initiatives, programs and offerings for the Virtual School  to enhance the opportunity for student success and increase overall success rate of students as measured by State assessment protocols, but after careful consideration and assessment of school operations, educational results, and the interests of its students and the community served by the Virtual School, the Board deems it to not be in the interest of the Virtual School or its students or community served by the Virtual School to seek renewal of the Charter; and

WHEREAS, the Board believes it is very important at this time to focus continued improvement efforts on the Hoosier Academy Indianapolis School hybrid/blended program and the Insight School of Indiana both of which are operated by the Corporation, and the Board, in concert with its Sponsor, Ball State University Office of Charter School and its educational management company, K12, Classroom, LLC, will be working to further identify best practices and lessons learned from the success and challenges of the Virtual School over the past several years of its existence to develop new and improved opportunities for students in our network of schools.

IT IS THEREFORE RESOLVED that the Board of Directors hereby authorizes, confirms and approves the decision to not pursue renewal of the Charter for the Virtual School beyond the term ending June 30, 2018, and to not submit a request for renewal of the Charter to its Sponsor; and

IT IS RESOLVED FURTHER that the Board President and the Head of Schools, be and hereby are, authorized to coordinate and work with the Sponsor to ensure timely notification to parents and a smooth and orderly closure and transition for students and parents, in accordance with all applicable laws and as guided by and consistent with the School Closure Plan Implementation protocol adopted by the Sponsor, Ball State University Office of Charter 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.

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?”