NC virtual charter schools off to rough academic start

The state’s new virtual charter schools earned Ds in their first year of operation for low test scores and lack of student growth.

Students math scores were a drag on the schools’ performance. Both schools received Fs in math and Cs in reading.

N.C. Virtual Academy had a passing rate of 30 percent in math, and N.C. Connections had a 36 percent math passing rate. Statewide, 54.7 percent of students in third through eighth grades passed end-of-grade tests in math, and 60.5 percent of students passed the end-of-course Math I test.

Leaders of both schools told the State Board of Education this week that they were going to try new ways to teach math.

Both schools enroll students statewide and are part of a four-year pilot program mandated by the legislature. Their approval was controversial because similar schools in other states have produced poor results. A Stanford University study last year of virtual charter schools found that students typically lost 72 days of learning in reading and 180 days of learning in math.

N.C. Virtual Academy Head of School Joel Medley said in an interview that the school should not be judged on results from one year.

“Give us four years and let us prove ourselves,” he said.

Medley, who used to run the charter school office at the state Department of Public Instruction, said the first few years of a charter’s existance are its lowest performing. In a presentation to the State Board of Education last fall, Medley said he reported that students were entering the school behind, so board members were prepared for the test results.

“We still have work to do to grow those kids,” he said.

The school making several changes this year focused on improving math knowledge that includes instruction in small groups, Medley said.

“We’re taking children and looking at where they are performing, based on internal asssessments,” and teaching them at their level,” Medley said.

N.C. Connections Academy school leader Nathan Currie told the state education board the school has developed a “math action plan.”

Virtual charter students learn from home or other locations with internet connections. The schools employ teachers for all grades who monitor and instruct students online, but parents are crucial to guiding younger students through the work.

Board of Education Chairman Bill Cobey said he was not worried about the schools’ first-year results.

“I’ve said all along that I’m focused on the second year,” he said.

“I’m impressed with what they’ve done so far,” he said. “I look forward to much better results.”

The state can learn from virtual charters’ experiences, Cobey said. Though digital learning is not for everyone, he said, it’s becoming more the norm.

Enrollment at the schools fluctuated over the last school year. N.C. Virtual, which is a operated by the company K12, Inc., had 1,283 students enrolled as the school year ended, and N.C. Connections Academy, part of the international company Pearson Education, enrolled 1,353 at the end of the year.

Lynn Bonner: 919-829-4821, @Lynn_Bonner