Single-district online learning programs were the fastest-growing sector of virtual learning in the United States in 2011. Whether it is to provide more options for students, keep more students from seeking virtual learning options outside the school district, or simply to move toward 21st-century teaching and learning, many districts are launching and sustaining their own virtual learning programs.
As districts move in this direction, they are taking a harder look at how they will evaluate their local models of virtual education, which is gaining popularity even though reviews on its effectiveness compared with that of more traditional approaches are still mixed.
“District administrators in close to half of all states know that they are losing students to online schools,” says John Watson, the founder of the Evergreen Education Group, a Durango, Colo.-based organization that researches online learning, and an author of the “Keeping Pace With K-12 Online Learning” report, which tracks annual trends in online learning.
As districts without virtual learning options lose students to online programs, they also lose per-pupil enrollment aid, siphoning precious dollars from district budgets.
In addition, Watson says, plenty of successful blended and virtual learning options are now out there, making district administrators more confident about taking the leap to online education.
“It’s not a plausible response to say, ‘It’s not time. It’s not proven yet,’ ” he says. “It’s clear that online and blended learning can work, and there are examples of it working.”
Keeping students in the 36,000-student Aurora Public School district was a main impetus to opening APS Online, says Randy Wood, the principal of the school in Aurora, Colo.
“When we first started, the superintendent came to me and said, ‘We have 1,100 kids each year leaving the district to seek an online option,’ ” he says. “We felt we could provide something of high quality for our students that would keep them in the district.”
The high school was launched in January 2010 with 50 students; it has since grown to two campuses and 230 full-time virtual students. (According to state law, the school can only admit 9 students or less from other districts.)
“We have students coming to us for a variety of reasons,” says Wood. “Whether it’s kids that just want to accelerate their high school learning, kids who are working full time to support their families or themselves, or students with medical conditions.”
The program uses a largely self-paced curriculum purchased from the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based curriculum provider e2020, and each student is required to come into one of the campuses at least twice a week, says Wood. Each campus has two full-time teachers to help students with academic work and career planning and to provide mentoring.
“Our teachers become more like counselors and mentors to these kids,” Wood says.
In addition, he says, students who do not have Internet access are provided with a netbook and an Internet stipend. About 60 percent of the students take advantage of those resources, while 40 percent already had Internet access and computers to do their coursework.
To ensure quality and accountability at the school, APS Online, like all the high schools in the district, develops a Unified Improvement Plan based on scores from the 9th and 10th grade Colorado State Assessment Program tests as well as the act college-entrance exam, taken by all 11th graders in the state. This year, APS Online is working on improving science, math, and ACT scores in the school.
In Hershey, Pa., administrators in the 3,500-student Derry Township district opened the Hershey Online Academy to help retain students in the district as well.
Started in fall 2011, the cyber school enrolled 14 students in grades 9-12 as of early 2012.
Once plans for the online school were under way, Joe McFarland, the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction for the district, called all the district families that had moved their children to online programs elsewhere to inform them of the new option.
“They wished this would have been an opportunity years ago,” he says. Many of the students and parents were interested in the program, but did not want to switch back into the district because of concerns about how that might affect the students’ dates of graduation, he says. That’s one of the reasons the district is looking at expanding the online academy to middle school.
“They can graduate with a Derry Township diploma and have that connection and opportunity to participate in some … extracurricular activities that they can’t if they’re outside the district,” says McFarland.
The district did not launch the program on its own, however. Instead, it became a member district of the Capital Area Online Learning Association, or CAOLA, which serves 18 districts and schools in the Capital Area Intermediate Unit, a regional educational service agency in Pennsylvania.
Joining CAOLA made it possible for administrators in the Derry Township district to launch the school quickly and cost-effectively, says McFarland. (“School Districts Team Up On Virtual Ed. Initiatives,” this report.)
“The nice thing about the partnership … is that you have other people who are working through it as well, and you can share ideas and strategies,” he says.
Because the school is so new, a formal evaluation process to determine the overall rigor of the courses has not been put into place yet, says McFarland. Eleventh-grade students’ Pennsylvania System of School Assessment scores will be compared to those in brick-and-mortar schools for a gauge, and administrators in the online school are evaluating feedback from parents and students to determine the rigor of the courses as well.
The 8,000-student Springfield City school system in Springfield, Ohio, recently began its own virtual academy for grades K-12. The decision grew out of feedback from the community about a need for more educational choices for students, says Superintendent David C. Estrop.
“We’re trying to create more choices and more opportunities for us to customize and personalize the educational program for students,” he says.
After the district had established five separate academies for high schoolers—the Preparatory Academy for struggling students; the Exploratory Academy for students unsure of their intended academic focus; the STEM Academy for students interested in science, technology, engineering, and math; the Health and Human Services Academy; and the International Arts and Communications Academy, which includes the district’s International Baccalaureate program as well as world-language courses—virtual learning was a natural progression, says Estrop.
Although the Springfield district has offered Plato Learning courses for credit recovery over the past several years, this is its first foray into full-time online learning.
The virtual academy will use curriculum from the Jefferson County Education Service Center in Ohio, Estrop says.
“We sincerely believe that one size of learning no longer fits everyone’s needs,” he says. “You’re no longer stuck having to learn one way at one time.”
The district, whose proportion of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch is 76 percent, underwent a major technology overhaul in the spring of 2010, says Estrop. Schools were outfitted with new hardware, software, and a beefed-up network, which allowed the district to begin setting the stage for virtual learning.
“If we think of the president’s goal of having everyone graduate, I don’t think it can be realized unless you have many choices in terms of how that can happen, and you provide flexibility to pick from among those choices,” Estrop says.
The school is using a variety of measures to evaluate the quality of the courses, says Estrop, including students’ grades, performance on state assessments, and course completion rates, as well as enrollment, attendance, and discipline referrals. The school also tracks which students go on to IB or AP courses, as well as college or university programs, and it is examining feedback from parents and students to gauge their satisfaction with the program.
‘Students are Changing’
Oregon’s 20,600-student Hillsboro school district, just outside Portland, is gearing up to launch the Hillsboro Online Academy in fall 2012.
“This whole thing started about three years ago, when the district decided to look at options,” says Linda Harrington, the principal of the virtual school. “We knew we needed to meet the needs of our students. Students are changing, life is changing, and technology is much different than it was even a short time ago.”
After a community survey revealed that students and families were interested in online learning options, the district began working to make such options a reality.
“We know that there are a lot of kids who may have become disenfranchised or disengaged with the [traditional school model], so we want to make sure whatever we build is different enough so [students] feel re-engaged or re-energized,” says Steve Larson, the district’s assistant superintendent for school performance.
To evaluate the online program, the district will be tracking course completion rates, student achievement on state assessments, as well as graduation rates, says Larson. In addition, the district will conduct evaluations of the program to hear feedback from teachers, parents, and students mid-year and at the end of the year, he says.
“As we move forward, we expect to develop specific performance indicators of the program to ensure adequate resource alignment,” he says.
Many of the details about the Hillsboro Online Academy—such as what curriculum students will use, what grades it will serve, and whether it will enroll students full time or part time—have yet to be hammered out. But district leaders say they are working with the community, and other school districts, to determine the best course of action.
“We have the benefit of partnership,” says Larson. “We can tailor the experience to our district, but other districts in the state are moving as quickly as us, and we’re strong enough partners that we can start to count on each other for some of the back-end stuff.”
For instance, he says, the district has been meeting with the nearby Portland and Beaverton school systems to talk about such options as buying curricula together for greater purchasing power.
“We would like to see that we don’t duplicate costs between districts that are a street away from each other,” Larson says.
In fact, the biggest challenge in opening the Hillsboro virtual school, both Harrington and Larson say, are the budget cuts that have reduced the district’s general fund.
“I don’t think there’s any other challenges than trying to do this in the context of budget reductions,” says Larson. “Everything else is doable. We’re not finding anybody saying that this isn’t the right thing to be doing. It’s ‘How fast can you get it up and running?’ ”