Online charter schools came to North Carolina under a cloud that still lingers two years after they began enrolling students.
K12, Inc. and Connections Academy were approved in 2015 as critics of online education pounded on reports of poor student performance in other states. The Tennessee education commissioner had tried to boot K12, Inc. out of his state. In 2014, a virtual school in Pennsylvania decided not to renew its management contract with the company.
In North Carolina, the State Board of Education approved the schools reluctantly, and only after the state legislature passed a law requiring the state to allow four-year pilot programs for two companies.
But both of North Carolina’s online charters received Ds from the state in their first year and again in their second year. Earning those low grades and falling short of expectations for student growth landed both schools the status of “low-performing schools.” Each school enrolled more than 1,700 students last year. Under the law, enrollment at each school can increase 20 percent each year.
Grades are based mainly on standardized test scores. A D means the school earned between 40 and 54 points on a 100-point scale.
All online charter students must have an adult at home who guides their progress and stays in contact with teachers.
Leslie Carter, a teacher at Connections, said she enrolled her own children in the school after Wake County redistricted them to a year-round school. Carter’s mother and mother-in-law were her children’s learning coaches last year.
“My kids can learn at their own pace,” she said. “They don’t have to wait for the rest of the class to finish their school work.”
The two online charters are part of public, for-profit companies. K12 Inc., which operates in the state as North Carolina Virtual Academy, is a public company that posted $9 million in profits in 2016.
Connections Academy is part of Baltimore-based Connections Education, which itself is owned by the international company Pearson, which publishes textbooks and sells a range of education products for children, college students, and adult workers. Pearson had a $3.2 billion loss in 2016 after it took a large write-down in the value of its U.S. higher education business.
Efforts to improve
Connections Academy’s math grade did improve from an F to a D in its second year, and its reading grade improved from a C to a B, even though its overall grade remained a D.
K12’s N.C. Virtual Academy did not do better in the second year, earning an F in math and a C in reading.
The head of N.C. Virtual Academy, Joel Medley, said after the first-year grades were issued that students had entered the school behind, and that the staff was focused on getting students more math help.
He did not return phone calls about the second-year scores.
Connections supplemented its curriculum with an instructional program focused on math concepts and offered a variety of tutoring options for the adult learning coaches and students, including a “traveling academy,” where teachers met face-to-face with learning coaches and students.
The first round of standardized tests was eye-opening for the school, said Nathan Currie, the school’s superintendent. For instance, some students lacked graphing calculators they needed for some exam questions, something the school hadn’t thought about because students use online graphing calculators at home.
Currie said students’ improved reading score was critical to getting its math score up because the math test relies on good reading comprehension.
This year, the school is using a computer program to identify student weaknesses in math and look for trends. It hired an “instructional interventionist” to identify students who aren’t doing well and help come up with individual improvement plans and offer face-to-face instruction, Currie said.
“The interventionist will peel back what’s going on with the kids and develop more specific plans to identify what’s happening,” he said.
Last year, 49 percent of Connections students and nearly 62 percent of N.C. Virtual Academy’s students were low-income.
Right after the schools opened in fall 2015, a national report out of Stanford University found an “overwhelming negative impact on student growth from attending an online charter school,” and that students enrolled in those schools lost academic ground when compared to students at traditional public schools.
Based on a 180-day school year, online students had the equivalent of 180 fewer days of learning in math — in essence, it was as if they received no math instruction, Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found. Online students had 76 fewer days of learning in reading.
Last year, K12 agreed to pay California $8.5 million to settle claims that the company and 14 of its affiliates in the state made misleading claims about student academic progress, parent satisfaction, and the availability of courses required for admission to California’s public universities in order to get people to enroll. K12 admitted no wrongdoing.
The online schools mark a big departure for North Carolina, and without geographic limitations, they have unprecedented reach. Each online school opened in 2015 with more than 1,000 students. Other charters launch with far fewer children, and even some of the most popular take years to get to 1,000 students. In the last year of the four-year test period, each of the online schools is authorized to have 2,592 students, unless the State Board of Education lifts the limit.
Under the companies’ contract with the state, the maximum student-teacher ratio is 50:1 from kindergarten through eighth grade, and it’s 150:1 for high school classes. Maximum K-3 class size in traditional public schools this year is 23 students; in upper grades, traditional public schools have higher student-teacher ratios.
Most of the companies’ students come from urban counties, but because instruction is online the schools have statewide reach, enrolling children from counties without brick-and-mortar charters.
Interest in the schools was high in the first year, and so were withdrawal rates. Connections reported 31.3 percent of its students withdrew – excluding 25 students who intended to enroll for a short time and didn’t have to be counted – putting it over the limit set in state law of 25 percent. N.C. Virtual Academy had a withdrawal rate of 25 percent – right at the limit – excluding 158 who did not plan to stay the full year.
After the legislature changed the way withdrawals from the online schools are counted, their rates dropped dramatically. Students are no longer counted in the withdrawal rate if they leave for family, personal, or medical reasons, move to another state, or leave within the first 30 days of school.
Praise from families
K12 produces a steady stream of offers for reporters to write about families who opted to enroll their children in N.C. Virtual Academy. Medley talked about those news reports when he gave performance updates at State Board of Education meetings.
Connections Academy has not engaged in the same vigorous public relations push, but it also has families who praise the curriculum and the flexibility online learning offers its students.
One morning last winter, Clark Eselgroth checked email from his teachers and began to read a health lesson posted on his laptop as recorded music from an adjacent dance studio wafted through a hall.
He was taking a break in dance training to work on a course offered through Connections.
Eselgroth, a sophomore, moved from Asheville to Cary about three years ago with his parents and was soon confronted with the question of how to balance school with the hours of daily work required to realize his goal of becoming a professional dancer.
After trying unsuccessfully to integrate training with a traditional public school schedule, Eselgroth enrolled in Connections in its first year. There, he is better able to manage the twin demands of academics and dance.
He and other students in the advanced program at the International Ballet Academy in Cary train and rehearse at times when most others their age are in classrooms or science labs. The dancers are enrolled in online schools or are home schooled so they can fit math, science and literature around their training.
Eselgroth works on coursework from home, at the dance school – anywhere he has his laptop.
“It’s way more accessible for our schedule throughout the day,” he said. “It’s very hands-on, and you talk with your teachers way more than you would think for an online school.”
At home, Eselgroth’s desk and his mother’s desk sit end-to-end. Amy Milne works from home and serves as her son’s learning coach.
With Eselgroth’s training schedule, it’s important that he enroll in a well-organized school, Milne said. His older sister enrolled in a online high school offered by Indiana University that was less structured while she was in dance training, Milne said.
The biggest adjustment for Milne was adapting to all the information coming in from teachers about her son’s classes and assignments. At the same time, the need for her son to communicate effectively with teachers he doesn’t see every day is preparing him for the adult work environment, she said.
“Online school puts a lot more responsibility on the student to manage the information and digest the information,” she said.
Clark received all Bs last year, his mother said. His math teacher called to say how pleased she was with his grades.
“We’re returning enthusiastically for another year,” Milne said.