A virtual school in Michigan graduated its second high school class on June 13, just as the state of Virginia prepares to open a full-time online high school in the fall.
The Michigan Great Lakes Virtual Academy is a full-time, online public charter school authorized by Manistee Area Public Schools. It opened in 2013 and serves students in kindergarten through 12th grade. The curriculum and other tools, all delivered online to students who can log in from any Internet access point, are provided by K12 Inc, a large provider of proprietary curriculum and online education programs.
The ceremony took place at Owosso High School, since the virtual academy has no auditorium, gymnasium, or other facility that could accommodate the 55 graduates and their guests. Manistee High School graduates about 120 students each year, and at Owosso High School, one of two high schools in the Owosso Public Schools district, about 240 students graduate each year.
“The success of the MGLVA Class of 2015 inspires our school to continue to grow and provide students with the education that’s right for them in the environment that is most supportive,” said Kendall Schroeder, head of the school. “This group has helped pave the way and prove to future students that if you work hard and believe in yourself, you can do it.”
For students in kindergarten through eighth grade, a parent or guardian serves as a learning coach and works with the school’s instructors to help facilitate learning. When students get to high school, certified teachers facilitate their online learning, and the learning coach’s role turns to one of mentoring, supporting, and encouraging the student.
Virginia-based K12 has a terrible track record. Two years ago, a group of 18 suburban Chicago school districts found the company’s proposal for a virtual academy in Illinois lacking, and every single district decided not to approve the virtual charter school the company would run. Just last week, problems started brewing in California, where K12 operates the California Virtual Academies, or CAVA, a network of 11 schools that serve 14,000 students statewide.
In separate filings, 16 teachers filed a total of 69 complaints against CAVA. The charges included inflating enrollment numbers to increase per-pupil funding, violating student privacy laws, misusing federal funds meant to serve poor children, and providing inadequate services for children with disabilities.
CAVA’s head of school, Katrina Abston, dismissed the complaints, saying they come from a small group of people and echo previous complaints by “various labor organizations seeking to represent CAVA: certified teachers.” The charges are “without merit,” she said, but K12’s failure to use certified teachers for kindergarten through eighth grade is a recipe for disaster.
A virtual high school, run by the state, will open in Virginia
An online high school, run by the state of Virginia, is set to open this fall, US News & World Report says. The commonwealth of Virginia and Florida would be the only states with state-run, full-time online programs, if the pilot is successful in Virginia.
“We are excited to offer this opportunity to high school students, especially those with the potential for thriving in a non-traditional instructional setting,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Steven R Staples was quoted as saying in a press release. “This expansion of the nationally recognized Virtual Virginia program provides more choice and flexibility to students seeking a high school diploma.”
Research on virtual schools is mixed … and not peer-reviewed
About 90 percent of all studies related to the effectiveness of online learning have looked at the phenomenon in older students, according to a 2009 report from the International Association for K-12 Online Learning. Furthermore, “there is not a single, large-scale, national study comparing students taking online courses with traditional students, using control groups in the instructional design.”
There may be some hope for this high school in Virginia, but online schools have not fared well in a great body of research. A 2011 study out of Stanford University, for instance, concluded that children learn less in online schools. And, Susan DeJarnatt, a Temple University law professor, has said cyber charters in Pennsylvania stole money and never invested it in education for their students.
The bottom line about cyber charters, though, is that eliminating them from the educational landscape completely would be a mistake. That’s because there’s a very small population of K-8 students who will have a better experience if their parent or guardian watches over their shoulder all the time. Sometimes, these students—and it’s a really small number—completely need to be educated at home because of a disability they have.
Unfortunately, as we have pointed out on these pages, cyber charters don’t market to the kids who really need a virtual school, because the population of those kids is so small that the charter companies wouldn’t make enough money.
What cyber charters do in their marketing campaigns is appeal to kids who don’t want to get up early by telling them they can start school at 11 AM. The marketing campaigns appeal to kids who have a muse, like gymnastics or dance, by telling them they can go to their private studios for hours a day without worrying about their class schedules.
K12 has been sued for not providing special-ed services for students who need those services, and the schools they run are some of the worst offenders when it comes to marketing to students who would probably best be served in a brick-and-mortar public school. These are kids who need an adult outside their families to say, “Hi, how are you doing?” every morning.
For high school, maybe there’s good reason to set up a virtual school that can bring in enough money to keep special-ed services available to those students who really need it. As I said, there’s a certain population of kids who will do better learning online under the supervision of a stay-at-home parent or guardian, especially in high school, where much more of the material is actually content-based. For K-8, though, I have my doubts about the need for money-making virtual academies.