Is the Future of Alabama Public Education Online?

In Alabama, both statewide virtual schools on the books in 2017-18 --Limestone County’s Virtual School and Conecuh County’s Genesis Innovative School -- earned F’s on the state report card.

by Trisha Powell Crain, Alabama Media Group / October 10, 2019
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(TNS) -- More than 5,400 public school students in Alabama today get their education entirely through a computer connection. Parents of students enrolled in virtual schools say it’s working better for their children: no more worrying about keeping up with the Joneses and no more bullying because their children don’t fit in with the “in” crowd.

"My children are not nearly as consumed with what others are doing or meeting the demands of peer pressure," said Brooke Veazey, mother of two who are attending a public high school online. "Both of my children are more confident in what they are learning, both are getting better rest since their start time is my choice, and both children are learning to appreciate themselves as individuals."

But, the growing practice raises new questions. While many parents seem happy with the home setup and flexible schedule, there are questions about how well students are learning.

In Alabama, both statewide virtual schools on the books in 2017-18---Limestone County’s Virtual School and Conecuh County’s Genesis Innovative School---earned F’s on the state report card.

And there are questions about money. There is no tuition or fee. So why would a small handful of school boards in rural Alabama suddenly hire private contractors to help take on the education of children from other counties?

Eufaula, a small city in south Alabama, has drawn so many online students it doubled its enrollment and substantially grew its state tax support. It grew so much that the system jumped up in athletic class. Yet all that without having to add more desks and all that without seeing any new faces in the hall.

Growing Nationwide

Veazey’s children attend Alabama Connections Academy, a K-12 online school powered by Pearson, one of two for-profit education giants leading the growing virtual school industry nationwide.

Across the country, there are 501 full-time virtual schools in 35 states. They enrolled just under 300,000 students during the 2017-18 school year, according to research by the National Education Policy Center in Colorado, shown in the chart below.

For Veazey's family, this is the second year attending school virtually.

Veazey, an education technology specialist working in public schools in the central Alabama area, said it took a little getting used to, but once a schedule was in place, things ran smoothly. She serves as her children's "learning coach," a must for parents overseeing their children's education in the virtual school world.

The learning coach is also supposed to make sure students don’t cheat on tests or other coursework.

"The biggest hurdle, in the beginning," she said, "was getting used to the learning environment, how to access lessons, how to communicate with teachers, and how to guide my children when they were in need of assistance."

The coursework is rigorous, she said, and the experience her children are gaining by being in charge of their learning is invaluable. “The expectations are higher due to the nature of the learning environment.”

“I feel my children will be better prepared for the responsibilities that come with college courses and workforce environments more so than I was when I was their age.”

Alabama's Big Three Plus Two

Alabama now has five virtual schools, where all schoolwork is done online. Unlike brick-and-mortar schools, these virtual schools have no zone lines. They can and do accept students from other school districts around the state.

The main three are: Eufaula’s Alabama Virtual Academy---the first of its kind in the state; Limestone County’s Virtual School also known as Alabama Connections Academy; and Conecuh County’s Genesis Innovative School.

A fourth program, Athens City’s Renaissance School, has scaled back on virtual schooling. It previously accepted a large number of virtual students statewide. But school officials found that the blended online experience, where students take some of their classes online, but also at times show up at a traditional school, is “more productive,” according to Superintendent Trey Holladay.

Renaissance now has about 125 virtual students statewide, Holladay said, with about 600 blended online students in the Tennessee Valley area.

A fifth statewide virtual school, Alabama Destination Career Academy, just opened in August for kindergarten through ninth-graders with plans to expand to 12th grade, and is being offered through Chickasaw City Schools in Mobile County.

Incentive for School Districts

It stands to reason that virtual school costs less than operating a brick-and-mortar building. In virtual school, building-related, transportation and school meal costs---which can add up to more than 30% of the total cost to educate a student in a school building---are avoided.

But the differences are sizeable, if recent spending numbers are to be believed.

According to recent numbers, Limestone County spent just $969 per virtual student and Conecuh County spent just $726 during the 2017-18 school year. That compares to an annual average of $9,425 per student for all schools in Alabama during the same time period. That suggests Conecuh could educate about 13 virtual students for the average cost of sending a single student to a neighborhood school.

State officials weren't sure whether the virtual school spending numbers were tallied correctly, though, and are working to ensure the 2018-19 spending data, due out Oct. 18, will reflect the total cost associated with the cost of virtual schooling.

The NEPC, in their 2019 annual report, found that virtual schooling costs less than what states are actually paying.

"Social Anxiety"

Mary Ann Danford spent more than 20 years in traditional brick-and-mortar public schools before becoming the full-time principal of Genesis Innovative School last year.

"I did not think I would fall in love and embrace it the way that I have," she said.

Don't let Conecuh County's 'F' on the 2017-18 report card lead you to believe students aren't doing well, Danford said. The 600 students in Kindergarten through 12th grade at Genesis are bright and dedicated, she said, and the 2018-19 report card will show improvement.

"We're going to show huge growth this year," Danford said, referring to the academic growth measure on the state's report card, due out Oct. 18.

Virtual school isn't for everyone, she said. Students need to be organized, independent, and self-motivated, she said. Families must provide the laptop or desktop, she said, and the internet connection must be high-speed and reliable.

"A large majority of our children are affected by social anxiety," she said, and many have been victims of cyber-bullying.

Danford said distance isn't a barrier to forming relationships with students and their families. "I feel like I know my virtual kids a lot better than my brick-and-mortar kids," she said. "Parents are so good to work with," she added.

Offsetting Declining Enrollment

For Brandy Dumas-Harris, Alabama Virtual Academy was just what her family needed. Dumas-Harris, a Huntsville resident, enrolled her oldest daughter in her kindergarten year, the first year the school opened. "She was being picked on by other students," she said. "She didn't want to go to school. She would not pay attention in class and fell behind."

"I saw the commercial for K12 and enrolled her," Dumas-Harris said. "We have been at Alabama Virtual Academy ever since."

In August, her oldest daughter started fifth grade and her youngest daughter started first grade. Both live in North Alabama. Both count toward the enrollment 250 miles away in Eufaula City Schools in the Black Belt.

With student enrollment declining in most districts across the state, enrolling online students from other districts presents an opportunity for a rural system to bolster the budget. That's because each student, whether online or in person, brings the local school board the same state tax dollars.

Some systems have expanded the program rapidly. In 2016-17, Eufaula—the first to open enrollment statewide—had 15 virtual students. By 2017-18, that number grew to 1,004, according to internal audit documents. By 2018-19, when the virtual school established itself as separate from other schools in the district, official enrollment numbers show 2,698 virtual students were enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grade. That's more than half of the total student body in the district as a whole.

The Eufaula City School district as a whole jumped from 2,691 students in 2015-16, to 5,293 students last school year.

That sudden increase pushed Eufaula High School up from being one of the largest schools in the Alabama High School Athletic Association's 5A classification, to one of the smaller schools in class 6A.

“Our (enrollment) numbers are inflated because of virtual kids,” Eufaula's then-football coach Bryan Moore said when the AHSAA moved the team to 6A. Because the virtual school is now separate from Eufaula High School, the school could be reclassified as a 5A school when those changes are made in January 2020.

Adding virtual students means adding state money to a district budget.

Around Alabama, school boards saw state funding increases ranging from 9% to more than 50% after they started enrolling virtual students. That amounts to millions and millions of dollars in state funding.

In 2015-16, Eufaula received $15.8 million in state funding. By 2017-18, state funding jumped to $24.3 million, a 53% increase. State funding for local schools increased by only 7% during the same time period.

Questions Over Outcomes

Nationally student outcomes at virtual schools are not up to par, according to NEPC. But, NEPC noted, virtual schools operated by school districts—as opposed to virtual charter schools, which are prohibited by law in Alabama—had better outcomes.

The graduation rate for virtual schools nationwide is just 50%, while the average rate for all schools was 84%, according to NEPC. (Graduation rates for Alabama's virtual schools have not yet been calculated because the schools are still new.)

Given that the two Alabama virtual schools that were graded on the 2017-18 report card earned F's, Alabama's virtual students don't appear to have much better results than virtual schools nationwide.

However, test scores so far appear mixed.

In Limestone County, 43% of the virtual school students reached proficiency in reading, 31% in math, and 35% in science. That's similar to the outcomes in brick-and-mortar schools in the Limestone district for reading (45%). Math and science proficiency are lower in the virtual schools.

In Conecuh County's Genesis Innovative School, test scores for 2017-18 show 54% of Genesis students are proficient in reading. That is higher than in other Conecuh County schools. Math and science proficiency levels are lower, at 22% and 21%, but that's roughly in line with other schools in the district.

However, fewer than half of Conecuh virtual students were tested. Participation rates in Limestone's virtual school were better but did not meet the 95% requirement in federal law.

For her part, Dumas-Harris is pleased with the rigor and test results her older daughter has received. “On (the state) math (test), she made above benchmark and on English she made well above benchmark,” she said. Her younger daughter will take the state tests in the spring for the first time.

Private Contractors Benefit

Alabama's virtual schools are still public schools. Students don't pay any tuition. The curriculum meets Alabama's standards. Online classes are taught by Alabama-certified teachers.

But unlike neighborhood schools, Alabama's statewide virtual schools rely on a private company.

And what the local school board pays to their virtual provider differs greatly. AL.com obtained contracts for three of Alabama’s statewide virtual schools. Each is being supported by one of two giants of virtual school---K12 and Pearson’s Connections Academy. They provide the curriculum and the learning platform.

Limestone County—the only district contracting with Pearson's Connections Academy--did not respond to repeated requests for a copy of the contract. The Limestone County Virtual School, also known as Alabama Connections Academy, enrolled more than 2,000 students—the second-largest virtual school in Alabama--during the 2018-19 school year.

Eufaula City Schools, holds a contract with K12 for the Alabama Virtual Academy, known also as ALVA. Their contract, first approved in 2015, requires all state funding, except for a 3% "Administrative Oversight Fee" to be forwarded to K12 for all virtual students.

That means K12 received around $5,300 of the $5,500 that Eufaula received from the state for each student for the 2017-18 school year.

Conecuh County in south Alabama operated a virtual school for a couple of years before establishing Genesis Innovative School as a statewide virtual school during the 2017-18 school year.

According to contracts the district provided, they pay K12 on a monthly basis and the cost of providing the curriculum—which includes the cost for Alabama-certified teachers---is between $340 and $399 per month, differing by the student's grade level. In a regular nine-month school year, that means K12 was paid around $3,600 of the $5,500 per student in state funds provided during the 2017-18 school year.

That means K12 received about $1,700 less per student for Genesis' students than ALVA's. Some of that variance could be due to the cost of the administrator of each school: at ALVA, K12 covers the cost of the principal, but at Genesis, cost for school administrators are covered by the district.

Attracting More White Students

Danford, the principal of Genesis Innovative School, said the curriculum, purchased from and administered by K12's Fuel Education, is rigorous. The school was one of seven nationwide to win Fuel Education's Transformation Award, which recognizes schools that create innovative programs and individualize student learning.

Student enrollment is growing at Genesis, Danford said, and the majority of students they serve actually live in other school districts. She said about 60% to 70% of their students left a brick-and-mortar school.

With students spreading across the state from Huntsville to Baldwin County, she said, she spends a good bit of time traveling to meet students and also to give them the required state tests. Danford said she wants families to know she and her team are here supporting the students.

Genesis has attracted a large number of white students, which is the opposite of statewide trends in brick-and-mortar schools.

Virtual school tripled the Conecuh County district’s white student enrollment, from 218 in 2015-16 to 594 in 2018-19. That means the proportion of white students rose from 15% to 32%. Meanwhile, the number of African American students stayed constant, rising from 1,163 to 1,190 during the same time frame.

Statewide, white students are becoming a smaller proportion of the student population. The Alabama data is consistent with national enrollment trends showing a higher proportion of white students are enrolled in virtual schools than in all schools nationwide.

Danford said the student population at the school is growing more diverse. This year's enrollment looks to be 60% white and 40% African American, she said, which is much different than last year's 80/20 split.

The percentage of students in poverty at Genesis was 96% during the 2017-18 school year, much higher than the state average of 53% during the same time period.

Statewide, students in poverty are enrolled in Alabama’s virtual schools in higher proportions than their wealthy peers—while nationwide, the proportion of students in poverty is about the same among the two types of schools, according to NEPC.

Virtual students have to show up at a centralized location for the same standardized tests students in brick-and-mortar schools take.

Over the next few weeks, Danford said, she'll start her "road show," traveling to Huntsville, Jacksonville, Birmingham, and south Alabama to test students on the 9th-grade pre-ACT and the 12th-grade WorkKeys. "I feel like I need to be there," she said, "because I am the face of this school."

No Virtual Charters

Many states allow virtual charter schools, but Alabama law prohibits them.

Instead, Alabama law requires virtual school providers, like giants K12 and Pearson’s Connections Academy, to go through existing public schools.

Alabama lawmakers passed a law in 2015 requiring all school districts to offer students in 9th through 12th grade a way to earn a diploma online by the start of the 2016-17 school year. Schools can use the state's online distance-learning program, called ACCESS, or they can contract with other districts.

Districts are also free to contract with private providers, like K12, Inc. and Pearson's Connections Academy.

There was no mention of statewide virtual schools in that 2015 law. But the idea at the time was for students to enroll in the school district where they live to force the local district to be responsible for the quality of the student’s education, according to groups working to pass the law at the time.

Alabama Association of School Boards Executive Director Sally Smith said her organization worked hard on that law to ensure local schools remain accountable for student outcomes. Smith said tighter accountability exists if local school officials oversee testing and special education services. So if a student begins to struggle in the online learning environment, the student can go back to attending the local brick-and-mortar school.

More recently, questions have come up about whether school districts can enroll students from other districts.

A 2018 memo from then-interim state Superintendent Ed Richardson stated that virtual students must be enrolled in their local school system and be counted as such. That means virtual students should be counted in the enrollment of the school district where they live.

However, no regulations or penalties for enrolling students living in other districts have been issued by the Department, so districts are free to enroll whomever they wish, no matter where they live.

Still, some districts have decided to keep it local.

Baldwin County's Blended Model

Baldwin County was one of the first school districts to dive into the virtual school world seven years ago. Today, like Athens, they are using a blended model, meaning students take some classes online, but have to take tests in a brick-and-mortar school.

Because students have to travel to one of four satellite campuses, they've limited their enrollment to Baldwin County students. Baldwin County teachers teach online and regularly interact with students, Principal Holly Resmondo said.

"Our teachers love our kids and make sure they get everything they need," she said. Virtual students can participate in extracurricular and sports activities at their zoned school, she said. Many do.

"A lot of other systems want to immediately offer a virtual school with all of these programs by using an outside vendor to do it," Chief Finance Officer John Wilson said. "It took us years to build up this program to the level that it is today. I think that's a big part of success."

Baldwin County Virtual School enrolled just over 300 students in sixth through 12th grade and earned a 'B' on the 2017-18 report card.

Wilson has concerns about the fully virtual model.

"Student enrollment is about dollars," he said, but bringing in students isn't something Baldwin County, the fastest growing school district in Alabama, has to worry about. "We're focusing on the kids, not trying to make a profit."

But for Dumas-Harris, the parent of two ALVA students, virtual school is working well.

"I love getting to watch my children learn new things," she said. "I love getting to watch them do science experiments and watch as their faces light up in amazement to see exactly how things work in the world. Stuff I would not get to see if they were in a brick and mortar school."

“I plan to have my kids at ALVA till they graduate from high school.”

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©2019 Alabama Media Group, Birmingham. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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