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The Journal Gazette

Friday, August 10, 2018 1:00 am

Virtual charters adding students

State gathers info on online schools

MATTHEW LEBLANC | The Journal Gazette

The school year began Wednesday for 17-year-old Emma Amos and her siblings Kyle, 14, and Bridget, 11.

But no bag lunches were prepared, and they didn't rush from their home on Fort Wayne's west side to a waiting school bus.

Instead, the students woke up, ate breakfast and headed downstairs to desks aligned in a row along a wall in the basement of the home. Each opened a Toshiba laptop and started work on the day's assignments – algebra for Kyle, science for Bridget and English for Emma.

They attend Indiana Connections Academy, one of six public virtual charter schools operating in the state. A growing number of families are choosing to educate their children online, according to enrollment data from the Indiana Department of Education, and proponents say the schools offer a flexible environment where students can learn at their own pace.

Others argue the schools do not meet state benchmarks for test scores, have low graduation rates and lack sufficient state oversight.

Katie Amos said the online option is essential to ensuring the academic success of her children. Emma and Bridget have learning disabilities that weren't being properly addressed in brick-and-mortar public schools, she said.

Emma's grades suffered, and she felt intense pressure to perform well academically, her mother said.

“She struggled a lot, and public school wasn't helping her,” Amos said. “(Now) we can take a couple days to work on one thing. If they need a mental break, they can have a break and then go right back to it.”

Wednesday marked the fifth time her children kicked off the school year online.

Enrollment in online charter schools has grown from fewer than 100 students in 2009 to more than 13,000 last year. Despite that growth, performance among students in the schools on standardized tests has been below average, according to state data.

In 2017, every virtual school – including Connections, the state's largest with about 4,600 students – received an F grade from the state. Grades are largely based on test scores and graduation rates.

Gordon Hendry, who chairs a committee appointed by the Indiana State Board of Education to look into regulation of the online charter schools, said that is unacceptable. The state must find a way to ensure public money is being spent responsibly on virtual schools and that students receive quality educations, he said.

The committee has met twice since it was created in May and will soon hear from national experts on virtual schools. The committee will tour Connections Academy on Wednesday.

“We're in information-gathering mode right now,” Hendry said. “We do have a lot of concerns about the performance of virtual charter schools in Indiana.”

It's not clear what specific suggestions might be made to the state board, but Southern Wells Elementary School Principal Cari Whicker, who also sits on the committee, said recommendations could come in October.

Connections Executive Director Melissa Brown said her school serves varied types of students including some who are below grade level or move a lot, special needs students and athletes who need flexibility to train and attend school. All of those factors could affect school performance, she said.

Brown, who has been with the school since it opened in 2010, said Connections also has received national attention for its counseling programs.

“Accountability is absolutely a concern for us, too,” she said. “Do I feel like we're serving kids well? Absolutely. A school like ours is a little different than most.”

That's the point for Kyle Amos, who is starting his freshman year in high school at Connections.

“Freedom,” he said, turning briefly away from his laptop. 

mleblanc@jg.net