Educators step up to the challenges facing Indiana’s underachieving online schools

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Kindergarten teacher Alyssa Davis leads a reading lesson at Hoosier Academy's building in Marion County.

Last in a Chalkbeat series about virtual schools.

Teacher Kris Phillips sat in her sunny office on a recent fall afternoon, preparing to start a math lesson for her middle-schoolers who needed extra help with fractions.

READ: Find more coverage of Indiana online schools here.

But unlike most teachers, she first carefully donned a headset and microphone.

That’s because Phillips’ classroom isn’t surrounded by the brick walls of a school building. Rather, she teaches within the confines of a computer screen, serving students who could be listening to her from every corner of the state.

Phillips is in her third year of teaching at Hoosier Academies, the largest virtual charter network in Indiana that serves about 4,200 kids across three schools. She’s the kind of teacher who’s willing to do just about anything to engage her students — even if that means getting a little goofy.

The former Avon educator knows it can be difficult to get kids, particularly those who struggle academically or who lack support at home, to connect with her and her instruction via computer, so a sense of humor and a bit of entertainment can go a long way.

The goal of the day’s lesson was simple: Phillips wanted to shore up her students’ skills in multiplying and reducing fractions, and she used a popular computer game called Minecraft and a dating game that included a character created by one of the girls in the class: A larger-than-life sheep named “Sheep, O Honorable Sheep.”

“I try to tap into their interest and make it fun or exciting,” Phillips said. “And if I have to be goofy in the process, I don’t care.”

The game and props proved fairly effective. Responses from her students, who she could hear through her headphones, flew up quickly on the screen in a small chat box as she asked them how to multiply pairs of numbers or reduce fractions. The set-up resembled a slightly complex Powerpoint presentation, with the lesson housed in a larger central screen surrounded by other boxes containing tools, chat rooms and buttons linking her to individual students’ workspaces.

When she later split students into individual spaces so they could complete extra problems and interact with her one-on-one, there was none of the transition chatter you’d commonly hear in a traditional classroom, so things moved more quickly. She moved through the spaces like you’d switch tabs in an internet browser. A single click took her from the main lesson presentation to other screens where she could see their individual work.

Her schedule can fluctuate from week to week, but when she’s not teaching one of her three or four live lessons a day, she’s analyzing student test data, meeting with parents or students or creating progress reports.

Phillips and other educators who spoke to Chalkbeat about their experiences teaching in online schools were adamant that this setting — where the four walls of a classroom are replaced by online chats, lots of emails and video screens — was best not just for their students, but for them as teachers.

Although as a whole, online schools across the state have failed to demonstrate widespread academic achievement, they remain a choice that a growing number of Indiana students and students across the country are turning to.

Teachers and educators in online schools shared why they chose virtual schools, the challenges they can face educating students and the success stories that keep them going.

Excerpts from interviews have been edited for length and clarity. Editor’s notes are in italics.

What makes their jobs different from teachers in traditional schools?

Kris Phillips, middle school math teacher at Hoosier Academy: It’s really a lot of parallel between the brick-and-mortar and virtual — it’s just we’re doing it on a different platform.

Ann Semon, sixth grade teacher at Hoosier Academy: At traditional schools, I spent my whole time managing behavior and kids getting in fights. I wanted to give them everything, but I felt like I couldn’t, whether it’s because there weren’t enough resources for someone to help me in my classroom or kids speaking multiple languages and I couldn’t help. I just felt like I couldn’t be successful.

Alyssa Davis, kindergarten teacher at Hoosier Academy: The caseload is certainly larger in our setting, but the beauty of it is I can pull these small groups while the rest of their class is working at home with their learning coach. Whereas in a brick-and-mortar school, the classroom management is hard.

This is nice because they are there with a learning coach doing lessons throughout the day, and I am there for lessons.

(Students in virtual schools have designated learning coaches, who can be parents, guardians or other engaged adults, who help them manage their classwork and communicate with teachers. The coaches are especially necessary in younger grades and usually will become less engaged day-to-day as students get older and can be more responsible for themselves. Indiana’s virtual school classes can enroll upwards of 50 students at a time.

But for most Indiana students in online schools, the flexibility and lack of teacher oversight aren’t working. Virtual schools see high rates of student turnover from year to year. At Hoosier Academies, for example, more than half of students turn over each year.)

What they like best about teaching in a virtual school

Corrie Barnett, middle school math teacher at Hoosier Academy: I loved this year because of the one-on-one attention. Each of my 50 students, I get to see them every day. Something we required for students this year was live class (lessons) for the first time. It’s just been amazing to see the growth. It’s just made us feel a lot more tied into (students’) families.

(Live lessons — similar to Phillips’ fraction-themed dating game lesson above — are online versions of a typical class lecture, where teachers present information to students and can work with them in groups or individually on the material. While teachers at Hoosier Academy have offered live lessons in the past, Barnett explained that students now are expected to attend.)

Phillips: One of the things I love about virtual teaching is that you don’t have to worry about the whole classroom management aspect of it. I feel like I can put my energy into teaching, and I can really focus on them learning. I don’t have to worry so much about the transition through the hallways, and the disruptions in the classroom and the things like that that you would normally.

What they find challenging about teaching in a virtual school

Davis: Parents are really part of the team. That is our challenge — making sure that our families are working at home. That is part of our job that is unique, too. We are not providing instruction all eight hours of the day. I do take time out of every day to make sure they are logging in and completing courses. But our job very much is teaching our students and guiding their learning coaches and families at home through our program.

Phillips: Coming in as a new teacher, it takes a little while to learn everything. But we have a really great system in place for training. I’ve been at four different school districts now, and I have never gotten as much training as I have at this place. They literally give you so many tools to learn from. But it does take a little bit to catch up on it in the beginning because there’s a lot of different platforms and technology that you have to learn.

Why do you think the performance of virtual schools isn’t better?

Phillips: We’re doing what we can with what we have. We have some kids that came to us that were below grade level, and we’re just trying to pull them up.

I had a kid a few weeks ago, and I heard on my microphone that it was noisy. She confided in me that she was in a hotel room because she was homeless. I immediately referred her to our (Family Academic Support Team). They get them resources. They find organizations in the area to help them get what they need to get on their feet. If we have students who aren’t showing up in class, maybe something like that is going on at home, and so we need to be aware.

Byron Ernest, Head of Hoosier Academies: When online education came into being, I think everybody thought, “You know what? The only people who will want to do this are ones that are super high-flyers.” And I think it didn’t take long for folks to realize, you will get those kids, but you’re also going to get students from all places, just like you would from any school.

Nobody was really prepared for that piece of how it was going to look. I think for the here and now, we realized, the teacher matters a lot in this. And I think that was a piece that maybe in the very beginning for all online education, that was maybe a piece that wasn’t there.

The other piece is really making sure that operationally, it still has to be a real school. Everything that goes on in any other school has to go on in an online school as well.

Derek Eaton, principal of Achieve Virtual Education Academy in Wayne Township: The majority of our 200 students, most are high school age, but of those in the seniors group, 18-19 year-olds, is our largest group of students.

And we’ve got quite a few adults, and they don’t want a GED. As long they don’t have a high school diploma we can take them. Now, adults tend to struggle the most. They get out of school mode, and what we see is life gets in the way. Up front they think (online school) is great, but they don’t consider themselves high school students — but we operate that way. You need to realize you are enrolling in high school again.

Melissa Brown, principal at Indiana Connections Academy: We get students where some are like, this is a last ditch effort for them. It’s really, really hard sometimes to make progress with those kids who just stay for a little while. So we have some really targeted efforts around engaging kids and keeping them here.

I will say first and foremost that our (English) scores are good. I’m very proud of that, but it also makes a lot of sense. Our students are probably reading more just by virtue of being in our school. I know our students are scoring lower than the state average in math, and it makes sense to me. Math is harder to learn online for a variety of reasons, but I think that daily instruction piece (is key). We need to get more to a model where students are doing daily math instruction.

That said, our math scores are trending up. While we’re not there yet at the state average, we’re getting there with a 2 percent increase every school year. It doesn’t seem like a lot, but it’s progress.

Now would I like for us to be an A school? Absolutely. You will never see me stop trying for an A, and I’m just that kind of person. But the truth is we have students who struggle. I know that answer sounds like an excuse, but these are students for whom nothing has worked before.

Indiana online schools

A tiny Indiana district is banking on virtual education to survive. But at what cost?

PHOTO: Hero Images
Young woman working at laptop.

In one year, a tiny rural Indiana school district more than tripled its enrollment, growing to nearly 1,000 students. But more than 800 of those students learn exclusively through a virtual education program — and despite fully funding it, the state has no way to know how well it’s doing.

State officials, researchers and the public can’t easily determine if students are learning because Union Schools’ virtual program and others like it are not distinct schools. Their student performance, enrollment, teaching staffs, and other data are rolled into existing brick-and-mortar schools.

Indiana lawmakers are starting to pay attention to the rapid growth in Union and realizing that programs like these could come at considerable cost. Unexpected growth in public schools is throwing off school funding estimates. Although virtual education programs are only one contributing factor, they are part of a larger shortfall creating a stir during this year’s legislative session.

There’s no way of tracking exactly where these virtual programs exist, how much they cost, or how students are performing.

As a result, lawmakers are taking steps to learn more about districts that pursue in-house virtual education programs and how pervasive they are across the state. District-run programs like the one at Union have operated largely unnoticed, even as online charter schools have shown dismal academic results and attracted scandal in Indiana and across the country.

Read: As students signed up, online school hired barely any teachers — but founder’s company charged it millions

Despite that, districts are using online learning to strategically expand their offerings — and as a profit stream.

“That’s where we’ve seen the greatest growth in K-12 online learning, is with the district-based programs,” said Michael Barbour, a researcher and professor from Touro University in California. “Districts have been losing (students) to these cyber charter schools for so long that they essentially want to develop an in-house version.”

Superintendent Allen Hayne said Union Rockets Virtual Academy has given his students more opportunities for learning. Even though Union is a tiny rural district about 70 miles northeast of Indianapolis, the program attracts students from more than 70 counties across the state. The boost in students has kept the district afloat financially as residential enrollment has waned, a trend for rural districts across the state.

Union operates its program with K12 Inc., one of the largest virtual education providers in the country. K12 also operates three Hoosier Academies charter schools, one of which is set to close in June.

Union’s growth came as a surprise to state lawmakers — and it was concerning enough that they’re crafting legislation that would require schools to submit yearly reports about their in-district virtual programs.

Rep. Tim Brown, chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee, last week amended Senate Bill 189, focused on school funding, to add in requirements for district-based virtual programs. By October, districts with these programs would have to report virtual program enrollment, total district enrollment, what grades the virtual students are in, where they live, and how much of their day is spent in a virtual learning program.

“We don’t know what we don’t know,” Brown said. “We need some data before you can necessarily take an analysis of what you think should happen in the future.”

The lack of distinct data on in-house virtual programs, Barbour said, means there’s almost no evidence that shows whether they are working.

“We have no easy way of discerning how the kids are doing compared to other online programs or compared to their brick-and-mortar counterparts because they are masked by everybody else,” Barbour said.

What we know about virtual education comes from research on virtual charter schools. On the whole, statewide virtual charter schools have shown poor student achievement: Every full-time Indiana online charter school received an F from the state in 2017.

Read: Gov. Eric Holcomb says Indiana’s low-rated online charter schools need ‘immediate attention and action’

But there are ways for districts to be more transparent. They can establish a separate school, which would allow their results to stand on their own.

Wayne Township has long had a separate, full-time online school, which primarily serves students who live within an hour of the district. Achieve Virtual Education Academy has existed in some form since 1999, starting as a distance-learning program. This year, the school enrolled 220 students, and in 2017, it was rated a D.

All of Achieve’s state data — test scores, graduation rate, enrollment, teacher evaluations — are available through Indiana’s state data website.

It’s still too early for Union to know how its virtual students are doing — because they just started, they haven’t tested yet. But the program has been popular, Hayne said. He gets phone calls just about every day from parents asking to enroll their students, and more than 200 students are on a waiting list.

Part of the reason Union pursued a virtual program was financial. The district needed to attract more students, and this was an easy way that also allowed them to expand course offerings for students living and attending school within the district.

The financial incentive for creating a district-run virtual program instead of becoming a charter school authorizer is appealing — and it offers the district more control.

First, authorizers can only collect up to 3 percent in fees from schools they oversee. Union’s contract with K12 Inc. nets them 5 percent. And unlike in online charter schools, virtual students in district programs get 100 percent of the state funding that traditional schools receive. Virtual charter schools get only 90 percent.

Overall, Hayne said Union ends up with about a few hundred thousand dollars.

“It kind of did a stop-gap measure for us. We’re not rolling in the money, to say the least,” Hayne said. “It kind of made us break even within our budget.”

Union’s strategy isn’t the only way to run a virtual program. Decatur Township, on the southwest side of Indianapolis, intentionally keeps its program small and mostly local, enrolling students from within 25 miles of district boundaries.

Decatur Township’s “MyLearning Virtual” program has been around for almost two years and currently enrolls 57 students, said assistant superintendent Nate Davis.

“We really don’t have any plans for major growth,” Davis said. “What we really want to do is use it … for a specific niche population within our school community that needs an alternative to a brick-and-mortar option.”

But as with Union, information about Decatur’s virtual enrollment size or student achievement isn’t distinct and isn’t available to the public.

That’s where Brown’s amendment would come in.

Still, the bill is currently in limbo. It’s one of two school funding bills lawmakers are negotiating during these last couple of weeks of session. It’s unclear at this point which version will move ahead. The virtual education issue didn’t receive much debate.

Chalkbeat’s investigation into Indiana Virtual School, a fast-growing online charter school that spent little of its state dollars on teachers and instruction, has spurred some interest from lawmakers in virtual education, but their attempts to make change so far have failed. Three other bills proposed this year that would have tightened rules for charter school authorizers and limited growth based on test scores were never given a hearing.

The financial incentives from the state, both for IVS and district-based virtual programs, means it’s likely that virtual education will continue to grow in Indiana.

Brown’s amendment could bring the state information about growth, but it wouldn’t do much to inform the debate about whether full-time virtual education is good for students. Rep. Greg Porter, an Indianapolis Democrat who also wants the state to look more closely at virtual schools and ratchet up consequences for low graduation rate, said the status quo isn’t enough.

“It is imperative that we have some transparency when it comes to virtual education,” Porter said. “Hopefully this summer, or next year when we do the budget … we’ll look at it in a hard way.”

Indiana online schools

Indiana lawmakers aren’t cracking down on virtual charter schools despite calls for change

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
A Hoosier Academy Virtual teacher keeps track of answers during a math review game.

Indiana lawmakers have killed three attempts to tighten the state’s charter school authorizing laws, even after Gov. Eric Holcomb called for improved accountability of troubled online charter schools.

A Chalkbeat investigation of Indiana Virtual School last year revealed how state law doesn’t go far enough to hold operators and authorizers of online charter schools accountable. The probe found that Indiana Virtual posted dismal academic results, hired few teachers, and had spending and business practices that raised ethical questions.

Special report: As students signed up, online school hired barely any teachers — but founder’s company charged it millions

But with proposals to tighten regulations facing pushback from influential education advocates, Republican lawmakers — many of whom benefit from online schools’ lobbying and campaign contributions — say there’s little interest in making changes.

“I’m surprised myself,” said Sen. Dennis Kruse, the Republican Senate Education Committee chairman who authored one of the charter school bills. “People from all different walks of life had concerns about different parts of the bill. Nobody came to me and said, ‘This is a great bill, go ahead and proceed with the bill.’”

Still, Holcomb is taking other steps to strengthen virtual charter school policy. With the Indiana State Board of Education, Holcomb’s team has been collecting information on best practices in virtual schools across the country.

PJ McGrew, the governor’s education policy director, said he hopes to have a plan to revise virtual school policies for the state board to consider in the spring. It could take about a year for the board to change that policy if they decide to move forward.

Lawmakers’ hesitation isn’t really surprising: Indiana has made sweeping changes to expand school choice, and Republican leaders have seldom supported laws that would restrict choice — even when issues are raised.

Rep. Bob Behning, the chairman of the influential House Education Committee who has long advocated for charter schools and new school models, said he doesn’t want to “jump into something, making a judgment, without knowing what the answers are.”

He also pointed out that it isn’t always clear how the state should hold schools accountable in practice because education law can be difficult to enforce: “There is no education police.”

“I definitely see there are some alarms that we need to be focused on and alerted to,” Behning said. “But there are similar alarms in traditional public schools going off all over the place as well. That’s the place I think we do struggle with. At what point in time is it appropriate for us to intervene?”

None of the bills proposed by lawmakers this year dealt directly with virtual schools, applying instead to charter schools as a whole. And none of them received any hearings.

Kruse’s proposal, Senate Bill 350, would have effectively prevented struggling online charter schools — or any charter school — from easily replicating. It would have stopped an authorizer from offering a new charter to an existing organizer unless its current students are achieving academically.

Three of Indiana’s largest online charter schools, including Indiana Virtual School, have recently opened second schools, which could help them stay in business if their first schools get shut down after years of poor performance

Two other proposals from Democrats, Senate Bills 315 and 406, went much further in dictating the results charter schools must show to enroll new students and open new schools.

Sen. Mark Stoops, a Bloomington Democrat who proposed Senate Bill 315, said for his caucus, examining whether charter schools need more regulation and oversight has been a recurring priority.

“It isn’t a difficult question,” he said. “It just needs to be done.”

But lawmakers would be up against the charter school movement’s money and influence.

Indiana lawmakers, including Behning and Kruse, have seen campaign contributions from online education companies. K12 Inc., one of the largest online education providers in the country, has given more than $90,000 to Indiana Republican races since 2006, according to the state campaign contribution database. Connections, another large national provider, has given more than $20,000.

Those online providers, who operate five online charter schools in Indiana, also have spent tens of thousands of dollars each year for the last decade lobbying lawmakers.

Indiana Virtual School has also recently started lobbying lawmakers in Indiana. Tom Stoughton, the founder of Indiana Virtual School, was listed as a registered lobbyist for the school in January, even as school officials say he has distanced himself from the school. Stoughton’s involvement with the school’s for-profit management company has raised ethical questions.

In the first filing period for 2017, Indiana Virtual School spent almost $12,000 on lobbying, according to data from the Indiana Lobby Registration Commission. In 2016, IVS spent a little more than $13,300.

Prominent charter school advocates can wield influence outside of lobbying, too. They have said they fear more prescriptive laws could hem in successful schools and authorizers, even though they have agreed that virtual schools, specifically, need more attention and oversight.

“Specific rules written to restrict the decisions of authorizers will not transform bad authorizers into high-quality authorizers,” David Harris, CEO of The Mind Trust, told Chalkbeat in January.

The National Association for Charter School Authorizers recommends that states consider virtual-specific policies, such as completion-based funding, making enrollment more selective, or even making them a different kind of non-charter school so enrollment and governance can be more controlled.

Indiana falls short when it comes to virtual school regulation, according to the association’s most recent report, even as the state is praised for having the strongest charter school laws in the nation. For the third year in a row, the group ranked Indiana No. 1.

Mike Petrilli, executive director of the Fordham Foundation, a conservative think tank that supports access to charter schools, has spoken in favor of making virtual schools a separate school type.

“We’ve got to turn this on its head,” Petrilli said. “It would be hard to do it within the general charter school rules which say you’ve got to take everybody … What we have learned is the charter school model and online learning are not a good fit for each other.”