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

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.