Indiana online charter schools told state officials Wednesday that they deserve special consideration because of the student populations they serve.
Leaders from Indiana Virtual School, Indiana Connections Academy, and Hoosier Academies, which all operate online, said that they are more likely than traditional schools to serve students who are below grade level, who frequently move, and who face other hurdles. Those challenges are reflected in the schools’ poor test scores, F grades from the state, and low graduation rates, they say.
School leaders said that state officials should reconsider how they measure virtual charter schools and add in such supports as better student data-tracking and enabling online schools to work more formally with families before they enroll their children. Indiana’s online charter schools serve students from every county in the state and allow students from grades K-12 to learn at their own pace from just about anywhere.
“We should be held accountable in more than just the academic arena,” said Percy Clark, superintendent for Indiana Virtual School and its sister school, Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, which Chalkbeat investigated last year. “Every ill that you want to name plagues our students.”
Clark mentioned teaching students who were homeless and ones who were balancing high school coursework with the demands of raising young children.
But members of the Indiana State Board of Education’s committee on virtual charter schools kept going back to the seeming inability of these schools to serve their students. In 2017, every full-time virtual charter school received an F-grade from the state; these grades are based primarily on test scores and the high school graduation rate.
The committee met for the second time Wednesday. Its chairman, Gordon Hendry, said he walked away with a lot of unanswered questions. He wants to hear more about how the schools operate and what their data shows.
“We’re just scratching the surface,” Hendry said.
The committee grilled the groups that run and oversee Indiana’s troubled virtual charter schools for more than three hours. Few of the schools could offer specific ways to solve their academic shortcomings. And despite concerns about oversight, the schools’ authorizers — the entities that monitor charter schools in Indiana — said the state need not add any laws to further accountability.
Clark said virtual education is still in its infancy in the state. If Indiana steps in too aggressively and forces the schools to close, students will lose much-needed options.
“This is like killing a baby,” Clark said.
Hendry pointed out that Indiana has had full-time virtual learning in place for almost 10 years. Connections and Hoosier Academy schools began as pilot programs in 2009. Indiana Virtual School opened in 2011.
Clark wants the state to focus less on things like the graduation rate and test scores, and more on how many credits students come in with and the extent to which that number increases after they attend virtual schools. He pointed to his school’s data that shows many students come to them as seniors who aren’t on-track to graduate.
Mary Gifford, a senior vice president with K12 Inc., the national for-profit that manages Hoosier Academies, and Melissa Brown, executive director for Connections, focused more on support they wanted from the state. Gifford said taking the temperature on metrics like graduation rates more frequently, even every semester, would be a welcome change. Brown said she wanted to see policy changes that would ensure online schools had more time to work with families before they enroll their children.
The more families know what they are getting into, Brown said, the more they can be sure the school is a good fit for their child.
“Students are taking this lightly, and that’s a problem,” Brown said. “I don’t think they understand all that is involved with being in a virtual school.”
But neither Ball State University, which oversees Connections and Hoosier Academies, nor Daleville Public Schools, which oversees Indiana Virtual School, saw a need for the state’s charter-authorizing law to change.
“What’s currently on the books is fine,” said Bob Marra, executive director for Ball State’s office of charter schools. “The oversight is there.”
Paul Garrison, Daleville’s superintendent, said there should be consistent standards for authorizing charter schools, regardless of whether they are traditional or virtual.
Hendry said at an earlier meeting that its goal is to make recommendations for new policies and laws that might help the schools. The committee will continue to meet through the end of the calendar year.