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Fox Valley districts set hearings on proposed ‘virtual’ education effort

OliviDel Boccio does much her homeschooling homework sketches for art foot her bed. | Dan Luedert~Sun-Times Media

Olivia Del Boccio does much of her homeschooling homework and sketches for art at the foot of her bed. | Dan Luedert~Sun-Times Media

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Hearing dates

Geneva: Met March 11

Indian Prairie: 5 p.m. March 18., Crouse Education Center

Naperville: 5 p.m. March 18, Administrative Center

Central District 301: 6 p.m. March 18, Central High

West Aurora: 6 p.m. March 18, West High library

St. Charles: 7 p.m. March 18, District Administration Center

Wheaton-Warrenville: 7 p.m. March 18, Administration Building

Kaneland: 7 p.m. March 18, Harter Middle

Elgin District U-46: 7 p.m. March 18, Board Chambers

Yorkville: 8 p.m. March 18, District Office

Plainfield: 8:30 p.m. March 18, Administrative Center

Carpentersville District 300: 6 p.m. March 19, Westfield Community professional development center

Batavia: 6 p.m. March 19, Rosalie Jones Administration Center

Oswego: 7 p.m. March 19, Oswego East High community room

DeKalb: 7 p.m. March 19, Educational Center

Sycamore: 7 p.m. March 19, Sycamore Middle cafeteria

East Aurora: 5:30 p.m. March 20, McKnight Service Center

Valley View: 6:30 p.m. March 27, Administrative Center

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Updated: April 14, 2013 6:06AM

Residents of 17 Fox Valley school districts will get their chance to ask questions about a proposed charter school that would serve students online, rather than in a classroom.

The online charter school would be governed by a St. Charles nonprofit, with curriculum provided by the for-profit online education giant K12 — which is facing criticism in other states for its achievement scores and other issues.

Local districts also are concerned the program will take money away from local classrooms.

Public hearings are scheduled for March 18-27 in districts around the area and a representative from K12 will be at each meeting to answer questions. The Geneva School District had its hearing this week, but a K12 representative did not attend that session. K12 said it was not notified of the Geneva hearing.

The nonprofit Virtual Learning Solutions filed a proposal on Feb. 14 with 18 local school districts — including West Aurora, East Aurora, Indian Prairie, Naperville, Oswego, Batavia, Geneva, Yorkville and Kaneland — seeking their approval of the Illinois Virtual Charter School at Fox River Valley that would open this fall. The online charter school would open an administrative building in the region and provide off-campus alternative learning options for students in kindergarten to 12th grade.

School Boards have 30 days after their public hearing to decide if they will accept the charter school’s application for a five-year contract, deny it or let the independent Illinois State Charter Commission decide what to do. If school officials deny the application, Virtual Learning Solutions will appeal the decision to the commission, according to the charter application.

Little precedent

There isn’t much precedent for a multi-district online charter school, though the Fox Valley proposal would be somewhat similar to K12’s California Virtual Academies.

Randall Greenway, vice president of school development for K12, said it was “not so clear” what would happen if only a few of the Fox Valley school districts approve the charter proposal. He acknowledged that if all 18 approve it, then the charter would have to report to 18 different “masters.”

“That’s a very complex and problematic situation,” he said.

“Virtual Learning Solutions is a newly formed organization with no prior experience as an entity in school operations,” the application states, so the nonprofit would contract with K12, a publicly traded company based in Herndon, Va., that is worth $767 million. K12 would provide the curriculum and the administrative services for the Fox Valley online charter school.

K12, which got into the online education field back in 2001, says it currently manages 47 online or blended public schools across the United States.

Who would it help?

In its proposal, Virtual Learning Solutions says it would offer students “rigorous” curriculum aligned to Illinois learning standards, including the Common Core. The curriculum, it says, is structured to serve at-risk students who may be dropouts, have attended multiple schools, aren’t proficient in ISAT standards or are lacking enough credits to graduate.

The nonprofit said the learning model also might be a good fit for athletes in training, musicians, students with health concerns, students frustrated by the slow pace of their classes or those who simply prefer to learn online. Classes could range from introductory math, science and history to Advanced Placement calculus and chemistry.

Each student would be given an individualized learning plan to follow and would receive web-based lessons, related books and other materials and could complete lessons from home — or anywhere else with an Internet connection.

Costs and controls

At a February meeting, West Aurora School Board members expressed concern about the lack of control they would have over the charter school’s curriculum.

They also were concerned about a possible loss of funding to the local school districts.

If the charter proposal is approved, each school district would negotiate with the charter to determine how much money the district would pay per student. Illinois charter law says the sum would range from 75 to 125 percent of what the district normally spends per child. As an example, the payment last year would have been $6,980 to $11,635 per student from West Aurora schools.

Greenway says the Fox Valley charter would start by asking for 84 percent.

“This is a savings for the taxpayers of Illinois,” he said.

But local districts are worried they may not be refunded if a student chooses to leave the charter and re-enroll at their traditional school.

Low student numbers

Greenway said the “mistaken belief” about this curriculum approach is that the child “is at a computer all day with no supervision.” Students would have web conferences with teachers and might complete group assignments with other students on the web, he said.

Illinois-licensed teachers specially trained in K12’s curriculum and online learning would be helping students, Greenway said, and teachers can track when students log in to their lessons and see how long it takes to complete them.

In a letter dated Feb. 4 to West Aurora Superintendent James Rydland, Virtual Learning Solutions said it did “not anticipate that a high percentage of students from each district will elect to enroll in this charter school.”

“This is a unique model and not a fit for every student,” the nonprofit’s president, Sharnell Jackson, wrote. “On average our experience is that less than ½ percent of one percent of the total student population in public schools are interested in enrolling in this type of school program.”

The charter estimated 500 students would enroll in the 2013-14 school year, with as many as 2,000 by the fifth year.

Red flags

Nationwide, other districts have raised red flags about online schools managed by K12.

In February, NBC in Nashville found that teachers at K12’s Tennessee Virtual Academy were asked via e-mail to delete some failing grades. Florida’s Department of Education is investigating K12 because of reports the company used uncertified teachers, according to NPR’s StateImpact program.

And the Arizona Republic found that many students in that state dropped out of K12 and other online schools.

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