Series

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.

action steps

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

PHOTO: AP Photo/Darron Cummings, Pool
Gov. Eric Holcomb, right, responds to a question during a debate for Indiana Governor.

On Thursday, Gov. Eric Holcomb said the Indiana Virtual School’s “unsatisfactory” performance — which includes two years of F grades, low ISTEP scores and high student-teacher ratio — requires policymakers to get involved.

In October, Chalkbeat reported that Indiana Virtual School, one of the state’s largest online charter schools, had received more than $20 million from the state while graduating about 61 students. And between at least 2011 and 2015, a for-profit company headed by Indiana Virtual’s founder, Thomas Stoughton, charged the school millions of dollars in management services and rent.

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

“The state shouldn’t allow schools that have that poor of performance to continue,” Holcomb told Chalkbeat in a one-on-one interview. “I look forward over this next year, with the state board of education, to help put in place measures that hold schools accountable for poor performance. Poor performance would be putting it lightly.”

Holcomb is not alone in calling for Indiana to address the poor academic track records of statewide online charter schools, even though Indiana has long embraced charter schools and school choice.

Former state schools chief Glenda Ritz said virtual schools aren’t a sufficient alternative to traditional schools. State board member Tony Walker said he was shocked by Indiana Virtual’s low number of teachers, while The Mind Trust’s David Harris thinks the state should place a renewed focus on the quality of authorizers, the groups that oversee charters in Indiana. Indiana Virtual is one of the few schools in the state to be overseen by a public school district, Daleville Schools, a small rural district near Muncie.

Also on Thursday, the Indiana State Teachers Association called for a moratorium on virtual charter school growth as well as a funding formula fix based on academic progress, not enrollment. ISTA also asked more broadly for more scrutiny of charter school finances and for the state education department to “approve and monitor a plan to prevent financial and enrollment fraud, waste and abuse.”

Indiana Virtual and its sister school that opened this year, Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, together enroll 6,332 students. Across the state, more than 12,000 students are enrolled in online charters, most of which earned F grades this year. Two other major online charters, Hoosier Academies and Indiana Connections Academy, also opened new schools in the past year or so.

Holcomb said he understands it can take authorizers time to make changes to address poor academics in the schools they oversee, but children only have so many years to spare.

At this point, Holcomb said he doesn’t see a need just yet for legislation addressing online schools, although he wouldn’t rule it out. He said his team has communicated with the state board that this area needs “immediate attention and action.” It’s not yet clear what measures they want to introduce, or how much authority the state board has to change charter school rules, but he indicated authorizing could be on the list.

Read: Indiana online charter schools need more oversight. These 3 changes could help.

“This next year we’ll be looking at all these issues to say how can we best give students options that fit their needs while at the same time (give) parents and taxpayers confidence that these options are worthy,” Holcomb said. “I think the state board, in this instance, can right the ship.”

 

policy talk

Indiana online charter schools need more oversight. These 3 changes could help.

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Daleville Public Schools, a small district located near Muncie, now oversees two statewide online charter schools.

The best way to fix a troubled charter school isn’t to go after the school, lawmakers and policymakers say — start with the authorizer.

A Chalkbeat investigation revealed that the school district charged with overseeing Indiana Virtual School has taken a hands-off approach that seems to meet the low expectations for authorizers in Indiana’s charter law, but the approach isn’t paying off when it comes to meeting the needs of the school’s students.

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

In the Hoosier state, authorizers — which can include universities, mayors, or school districts — can only be punished for their school’s bad academic performance, not other kinds of missteps. Even then, there’s no guarantee that a school would close or that an authorizer would be stripped of its privileges to oversee schools. Many states have grappled with how to approve the best authorizers who will operate good schools, and even though Indiana’s policy has been held up as a national model, it has gaps.

“You have authorizers that aren’t behaving appropriately, whether it be malicious or not,” said James Betley, executive director of the Indiana Charter School Board, one of the state’s charter authorizers. “Currently, consequences only come in when a school performs badly because our laws don’t contemplate legal violations.”

Control has been at the crux the debate — how much should an authorizer get involved in the daily affairs of charter schools, and how much should the state intervene if an authorizer veers off course? In an atmosphere where free market politics encourage experimentation, authorizers are given broad reign.

But in Indiana, authorizers are often paid by the schools they oversee, and there’s not much incentive to close them. David Harris, founder and CEO of The Mind Trust, said authorizers not only shouldn’t get authorizing fees from schools, but they also need to be heavily screened upfront to make sure they can do the work — especially if they are going to authorize virtual schools, which tend to have poor track records for student learning.

“The authorizer needs to assess whether it has the capacity to effectively oversee a school,” Harris said. “And if they can’t make the case that they do that well, then they shouldn’t authorize the school in the first place.”

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Oversight of Indiana Virtual School by the small Daleville Community School District has been fairly hands-off by the district’s own admission, and the district was on-track to earn at least $750,000 in fees last year. Over its six-year lifespan, the F-rated school has enrolled thousands of students but failed to graduate most of them or hire more than several dozen teachers. But it continues to bring in millions of state dollars. Daleville this summer began piloting a new evaluation tool that it thinks can help improve Indiana Virtual.

Since 2011, a for-profit company headed by Indiana Virtual’s founder, Thomas Stoughton, has charged the school millions of dollars in management services and rent, an agreement Daleville said it was unaware of. Stoughton has also led the school’s growth. In September, he opened a second statewide virtual school, also chartered by Daleville.

The variety of issues at Indiana Virtual School underscore a wider need to re-examine how the state holds charter school authorizers accountable for their schools.

“There’s a need to have virtual and online platforms available for certain students,” said state board member Tony Walker. “That being said, there are some problems I think with our model that I think are highlighted by this situation … there was a failure of the authorizer to keep proper monitoring and accountability.”

Ultimately, as Indiana lawmakers prepare to begin the 2018 legislative session in January, they can change the law, but it’s hard to say if they will. And though the State Board of Education has the authority to change education policy, it’s unclear how they could affect existing laws or policy around authorizing. At the very least, someone should be paying attention, said Mike Petrilli, executive director of the Fordham Foundation, a conservative think tank that supports access to charter schools.

“There’s no doubt that many of these online schools are disasters,” Petrilli said. “We have now seen in many states both terrible outcomes, but also financial scandals. And so there’s no doubt that policymakers have to figure out a better approach to regulating these entities.”

There are a number of steps Indiana could take to close gaps that allow chronically underperforming schools or subpar authorizers to continue. Here are some options:

Re-evaluate current authorizers to make sure they are up to the state’s standards.

In addition to other authorizing changes made in 2011 and 2013, Indiana created stricter requirements to weed out unfit authorizers in 2015. The move was widely praised — that year and in 2016, the state’s policies earned a top ranking from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

But when the law changed, existing authorizers, including Daleville, were grandfathered in and didn’t have to go through the new, more rigorous screening through the Indiana State Board of Education. School districts that applied were automatically approved and didn’t need to complete the rest of the screening.

There’s no definitive consensus about what good authorizing looks like, partially because charter advocates have long lobbied for fewer restrictions. So although Indiana requires that all nine of its authorizers adopt best practices, such as those developed by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, state charter law lays out no way to enforce it. (Compared to the association’s general guidelines, those on virtual charter schools are much more stringent.)

State Board spokesman Josh Gillespie said only the Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson United school district has applied to be an authorizer since the rule change, a 1,828-student district about 30 miles south of Indianapolis. The district doesn’t appear to charter any schools at this time.

If the state wanted to send a message that it valued high quality authorizers, it could walk back the grandfathering provision.

Stop allowing authorizers to get paid by the schools they oversee.

Under current law, charter authorizers can collect up 3 percent of a school’s state funding as payment for monitoring.

Authorizers should have the ability to get financial support for their work, sources told Chalkbeat, but that support shouldn’t come from schools themselves. Tony Walker, a member of the Indiana State Board of Education representing Northwest Indiana, said he worries about the fees in particular when it comes to school district authorizers that might already be struggling financially compared to larger state organizations and universities.

“There are inherent conflicts that arise when (a district) is getting chartering fees from the school and they desperately need the money,” Walker said. “I don’t think they have the same resources that Ball State and the (Indiana Charter School Board) have in terms of monitoring and providing support.”

One alternative is that the state could budget to support all authorizers directly. If the money isn’t tied to school enrollment, it could help reduce the incentive to accrue students beyond what a school can actually support.

“The fee is a bad idea,” Harris said. “It creates an incentive to charter schools that shouldn’t be chartered because the authorizer generates revenue from that.”

Keep authorizers and virtual charter operators from opening additional schools or enrolling students if current ones have been consistently low-performing.

Restricting how virtual schools gain students and replicate could make sense even in a state that has long supported online education.

Currently, public charter schools need four years of F grades before the state board can cap enrollment, reduce authorizer fees or close the school.

But there’s already precedent set in Indiana law for how this system could improve to address troubled schools more quickly and automatically. Lawmakers could take a cue from the state’s voucher program.

If a private school gets a D or F grade from the state for two consecutive years, it is no longer eligible to receive vouchers for new students. Last year the law was tweaked to allow schools to appeal that decision, but the state board can still deny such a request.

Indiana Virtual School, Hoosier Academies and Indiana Connections Academy — all statewide, full-time online charter schools with consecutive years of F grades — have quietly opened new schools within the past year or so.

Sen. Dennis Kruse, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said it doesn’t make sense to allow low-performing schools to open new schools.

“I think virtual schools should succeed or not be opened,” Kruse said. “So if they can’t get their act together, I think they ought to decide to just close down their schools … If they’re failing with what they’re doing now, why should we allow them to open up more failing schools?”