The problem has exacerbated the urban-rural divide in the state, where 96 percent of urban school districts have high speed broadband, but only 64 percent of rural schools have the same.
(TNS) — Soaring enrollments, growing graduation classes and expansion into new buildings underscores the recent surge in popularity in online education in Alabama.
But the rapid growth of so-called virtual schools is likely to soon encounter the harsh reality of a lack of access to high-speed and functioning internet in rural areas.
The issue illustrates two political pushes in Montgomery and Washington, D.C.: A need to find revenue to provide crucial connections to the state’s rural areas while politicians and educators pursue expansion of online coursework.
“This is an issue,” said Eric Mackey, state superintendent in Alabama. “The real problem is when students go home and, in many cases, do not have the access they need to do homework and research and cannot keep up with their peers in more urban communities.”
Said state Rep. David Standridge, R-Hayden, and chairman of the Alabama House Rural Caucus: “There are these issues of concern out there in the rural areas.”
Virtual schools sound exactly like what they are: They are schools providing an online-only education for students which allows them flexibility on when to take classes and complete assignments without having to actually come inside a school.
Students are required to show up to a building to take standardized tests, and often meet with teachers and counselors in person, but most schools do not establish structured in-person meetings. Classes are taken online, which do require students to participate through programs established by either by the state or through a private contractor hired by an individual school district.
“The physical brick and mortar school is the answer for 95 percent of kids for the foreseeable future,” said Mackey. “Most parents don’t want their children staying home alone and with a teacher, but for a certain student, the virtual works really well.”
A typical virtual student mix consists of kids with special needs such as physical limitations, home school students, and students with anxiety issues. Others attend a virtual school because they are pursuing careers or activities that take them outside of their home base, such as acting, modeling, rodeo, or playing on a hockey team.
But high-speed internet access in rural areas remains a public concern outside the state’s well-connected cities, and federal statistics show disparities still exist within the state.
That urban-rural split could impact the reach of virtual schools, which proponents say are “not going to go away.”
Former Republican State Senator Dick Brewbaker of Montgomery sponsored legislation that passed into law in 2015 requiring all schools to establish a policy for setting up a virtual school, and providing funds for such a school.
As Brewbaker noted, some school systems “have done a lot with” virtual schools while most others have done the minimum.
But virtual schools, like almost all modern-day economic or educational expansion opportunities, require access to quality internet. In some areas of Alabama, much like elsewhere in rural America, spotty or no internet service requires children to do their homework in Wi-Fi-equipped buses or fast-food restaurants or places outside their homes.
The Federal Communications Commission, in its 2018 annual report, said that 24 million Americans lack access to high-speed broadband defined by the federal government as having download speeds of about 25 megabits per second.
Microsoft researchers, as reported by The New York Times on Tuesday, believe the numbers could be worse. The researchers concluded that 162.8 million people do not use the internet at broadband speeds, and that discrepancy is particularly stark in rural areas.
In Alabama, FCC data shows that 96.6 percent of urban regions with fast broadband access. In rural areas, the percentages drop to 63.8 percent.
Alabama’s rural high-speed broadband reach is lower than Georgia, Kentucky, Texas and South Carolina. But it’s far from the worst: Mississippi, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Indiana, Missouri, and a host of western states including California and Hawaii, have a worse rural reach than Alabama.
Still, there are wide variations in statistics among the counties. While nearly 100 percent of Jefferson County is connected to high-speed service, none of the counties in Alabama’s Black Belt region can claim over 50 percent coverage.
In Conecuh County, home to a virtual school called Genesis Innovative School, only 14.3 percent of the county’s 10,517 rural residents are connected to high-speed access, according to FCC documents.
Almost all of the school’s nearly 500 students who participate in the virtual studies, reside outside of Conecuh County, according to an Alabama Public Radio story.
In Eufaula, home of the Alabama Virtual Academy with an enrollment of almost 3,000 students spread throughout the state, proximity to high-speed internet access is a must.
“Most people don’t even try if they don’t have internet being (that this is) an online school,” said Kayleen Marble, head of school with the Alabama Virtual Academy. She is part of the privately-owned Virginia-based K12 Inc., which administers the program for Eufaula.
“We do have students in rural areas of Alabama,” said Marble. “It’s not as much of a problem as it used to be, but we don’t hear about it (a lack of access concerns) because they are not starting their enrollment (with us).”
Eufaula is located in Barbour County, where 100 percent of the county’s communities are connected to high-speed internet service but only 33 percent of the county’s 17,600 rural residents are connected to high-speed broadband.
The Virtual Academy, much like Conecuh, consists of Alabama students throughout the state. Graduation ceremonies, for instance, will take place in Prattville this spring because it’s more centrally located in the state than Eufaula.
Standridge, the House Rural Caucus chairman, said his biggest concern with the advent of virtual schools is the potential poaching of students from smaller, and more financially-strapped, schools in counties with poor broadband access.
“The concern is that if the law allowed students to sign up with any district in Alabama, and the enrollment counts are made with that school system, that money will follow the student of the district where the virtual school is,” said Standridge. “It could impact the local system especially in rural areas.”
Mackey said that the State Department of Education is following the law that was spelled out about three years ago, which required every public school system in the state to establish a virtual school policy.
“The state law is very clear in that we will fund virtual students like we fund other students,” he said. “We don’t forward the bus driver funds to a virtual school, but the Legislature laid out the law and said they wanted virtual schools and that they wanted them funded.”
Said Brewbaker: “Do we tax people to educate people or protect institutions? (With virtual schools) you can pull the material from anywhere, you don’t have to limit yourself going in to a physical locale and that is the whole idea.”
Mackey said he doesn’t anticipate any forthcoming legislative changes with the schools, though he said the state’s education department hasn’t found a good way to measure their performance yet.
The model is very much still in its infancy, and only one school has been around long enough for state records to record a performance trend. Athens Renaissance, the K-12 online school that is part of the Athens City School System, received an overall “C” grade on a recent A-F report card score. Reading, math and science proficiency scores came in under the Athens School System average.
Nationwide, concerns have mounted over virtual school performances. Much of those concerns have focused on privately-operated virtual charter schools, which are not allowed in Alabama.
But at most of Alabama’s virtual schools, local school boards contract with private entities who are then charged with administering the curriculum.
The Alabama Virtual Academy, which is run by K12 Inc., is an example. The company, which operates virtual schools in 30 states, is in charge of hiring the virtual school’s 135 certified teachers and support staff including counselors. The teachers are not state employees, and are not included in the state’s benefits program.
Robin Lake, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell, who oversaw a 2015 national study into online charter schools, is chief among the critics.
She said performances “have been pretty disappointing” nationwide, with “very little variations” among states.
“We are trying to understand why that may be the case,” said Lake. “Students who do online or virtual programs come to it for a lot of reasons. Some are certainly successful under the right conditions, but they have to be pretty self-directed by their school district and by someone who is close to the kids to make sure they are not holing up in their rooms and getting more and more disconnected.”
Lake admits that the schools can be favorable for students, especially among those who are training for performance arts requiring them to be away from a traditional classroom setting. Other typical virtual school students are children who face difficult social situations.
Homeschooled students, as well, are also part of an online school, and the current system has enabled some public schools to recapture students who were being taught at home.
Lake said that parents have to be “really involved.”
Holly Resmondo, principal at the Baldwin County virtual school and whose daughter participated in virtual learning when she was high school, said the involvement of her teachers and administrators within the county’s program has made it “unique.”
At Baldwin County, each student is assigned a state certified “mentor teacher” whom they sit down with in a one-on-one setting if they are falling behind in their grades.
“They are just kind of their coach and their cheerleader,” said Resmondo. “A lot of programs just put the students online and into a class and whatever grades you get, you get. We don’t do that. We work with the helping these kids get settled in, to (teach) them how to do online classes and get them acquainted with how much work is involved and how to plan and achieve their goals.”
The Baldwin County program, unlike the program run in Eufaula, is administered by the Alabama Connecting Classrooms, Educators and Students Statewide (ACCESS). The program has been funded by the state for more than a dozen years, and provides web-based learning for Alabama high school students.
Georgia Halstead of Spanish Fort whose 17-year-old daughter, Mary-Mitchell, will graduate this spring from the Baldwin County virtual school, has nothing but praise for the schools.
“It’s been a good fit for her mainly because there are no cliques. No drama,” said Halstead. “For her, in middle school, she’d complain a lot that they wouldn’t do much in math in class, and she wasn’t doing so hot in math, and she wasn’t learning like she should’ve been.
Halstead added, “There is a lot of anxiety and she needed to get away from (Spanish Fort High School) and have her own schedule and feel more in charge over what she was doing.”
©2018 Alabama Media Group, Birmingham. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.