Virtual charters offer real access to NC students

A student does schoolwork online after participating in an advanced dance program at the International Ballet Academy in Cary.
A student does schoolwork online after participating in an advanced dance program at the International Ballet Academy in Cary. tlong@newsobserver.com

The intent of North Carolina’s Charter School Act was to create public school options for families and expand learning experiences for students, including those identified as at-risk and academically gifted; to promote creative teaching methods, share best practices, and offer new professional opportunities for educators.

Today, North Carolina has 173 brick-and-mortar charter schools in 60 counties. They have done a tremendous job bringing educational opportunity to students. But despite high demand, charter schools remain inaccessible to many families.

The reason? Most charter schools are concentrated in highly-populated areas, leaving families in rural communities and outlying counties without access. This is not a flaw, but a reality: brick-and-mortar schools are constrained by location and space. Students can enroll but only if seats are available and if the school is located near where they live.

The charter school “accessibility gap” is a real challenge and has plagued charter advocates for years. According to a report published by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, rural charters make up only 16 percent of charter schools in the United States. That same report identified North Carolina as the state with the largest population of rural students, yet more than 20 years after the Charter School Act was passed, 40 counties are without a single charter school.

Online charter schools are helping bridge that gap by providing families charter school options where none exist.

In 2014, the state enacted an online charter school pilot program. Today, nearly 4,300 students are enrolled in two online charter schools – both with sizeable waiting lists. These schools enable students to receive access to a full-time, comprehensive public education wherever they live. Students work independently, using innovative digital-based courses with instruction, guidance and support from state-certified teachers.

Rather than bringing the student to school, online charters bring school to the student. Technology acts as the vehicle – the equivalent of a bus transporting kids to buildings – delivering public education to the homes of every student. Free from the barriers of location and space, students from every corner in the state have equal access to these public schools of choice.

In my previous role as director of the N.C. Office of Charter Schools, I witnessed the charter school accessibility gap firsthand. I believed that online learning could help extend the reach of charter schools to students in all communities – urban, rural and suburban.

I now work alongside a dedicated team of educators and charter board members to lead the North Carolina Virtual Academy (NCVA). We are proud that in just two years NCVA has become a true statewide public school with students from 97 of the state’s 100 counties and 107 of the 115 school districts.

Online charters are not for everyone, but they are the only viable choice for some. NCVA serves kids with serious medical challenges who can’t attend traditional school, victims of bullying, kids with special education needs not being met in the classroom, and those who dropped out of school but have no other option. The majority of students at NCVA are economically-disadvantaged – 64.4 percent – compared to the state average of 47.7 percent.

NCVA’s initial academic results show that achievement increases the longer students are enrolled and that the school performs comparable to other local education agencies with similar demographics. Compared to Washington County – a district that enrolls about the same number of students with a similarly high population of special needs and economically disadvantaged students – NCVA outperformed the district in four out of six categories and was comparable (within 5 percentage points) in all other areas. NCVA’s ACT scores also exceeded the state average by a wide margin.

NCVA is implementing plans to raise achievement in several targeted areas. While not where we want to be, we have made improvements in each of our two years.

Nonetheless, two years of academic data is not enough information to draw sweeping conclusions for any school. We are only halfway through a four-year pilot for this new education model. What is indisputable, however, is that online charter schools are fulfilling the original intent of North Carolina’s charter school law, providing a vital option that parents want, serving students with no educational alternatives, and helping close the charter school accessibility gap.

Access is everything. Without it, there can be no opportunity. Online charter schools can go where traditional charters cannot and reach students who otherwise would not be served. That matters for North Carolina’s families, especially for those I’m privileged to serve every day.

Joel Medley is an educator with nearly two decades of experience with charter schools and in state government. He is currently head of school at North Carolina Virtual Academy and previously served as director of the N.C. Office of Charter Schools.

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