West Aurora School Board raises concerns about virtual charter
By Kalyn Belsha email@example.com March 18, 2013 10:24PM
Head of Chicago Virtual Charter School Dr. Craig Butz speaks to the District 129 board at West Aurora High School on Monday, March 18, 2013. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media
AURORA — West Aurora School Board members raised a deluge of concerns about an 18-district Fox Valley virtual charter proposal at its meeting Monday night, questioning the charter’s financial impact on the district, the rigors of the chosen curriculum and the reputation of K12, the for-profit online education company that would provide curriculum and day-to-day management of the school.
Craig Butz, the head of school at Chicago Virtual Charter School, which uses K12 curriculum, spoke on behalf of K12 and — to the disappointment of district officials and Board members — was unable to answer many questions specific to the proposal and West Aurora, since he is not a member of Virtual Learning Solutions, the St. Charles-based nonprofit that is putting forward the proposal and would oversee K12.
Ten public meetings were held Monday night, which meant the five board members of Virtual Learning Solutions could not be at every school.
Virtual Learning Solutions has proposed to open an online charter school this fall that would serve students in kindergarten to 12th grade in 18 Fox Valley districts — including East Aurora, West Aurora, Naperville, Indian Prairie and Oswego — using web-based lessons from K12. The charter proposal says the school would be a good fit for at-risk students and others who would prefer to learn online instead of in a traditional brick-and-mortar school, with the help of Illinois-accredited teachers.
Board members said they were skeptical of K12’s reputation and cited evidence from multiple news sites and universities.
Board member Jonathan Wood read excerpts of an investigation by the New York Times that found some high school teachers at K12 schools complained they managed too many children, that children performed worse than their counterparts at traditional schools and that online schools had a high turnover rate.
Board member Mark Bradford said he’d read about several lawsuits against K12 that were being settled, without the terms being made public.
“The feeling is the more we try to know you, the less we know,” Bradford said.
Butz countered that K12 had published rebuttals to some of the claims on its website.
“They’re shaking up the status quo and in doing so have become a target,” he said.
He added that many students who chose to be educated at online schools tend to be low-achievers.
“A lot of the students who come to a school like this, they’re coming as a last grasp,” Butz said. “A lot of the students we serve are students who’ve traditionally failed.”
Board members expressed concern that each of the 18 districts would contribute its own tuition per student — anywhere from 75 to 125 percent of what they’d normally spend — and that some districts would end up spending more per student, effectively “subsidizing” other districts.
According to the charter proposal, the average spent per student in the 18 districts would be $8,000 — a cost that would build in the price of providing Internet and computers to students who do not have them. But districts like West Aurora could pay more. Based on what the district spent last fiscal year, the range would have been $6,980 to $11,635.
Butz said that about .25 to .5 percent of a district’s population tends to enroll in online charters. For a district like West Aurora, that would be about 32 to 63 kids. Butz said on average, about 25 to 40 percent of students who enroll in the first year tend to be formerly homeschooled children, which would draw in additional funding for the district.
But a West Aurora parent said, in a letter read aloud during the meeting, that she feared this proposal was exactly that — home-schooling dressed up as an online charter that would take funding from brick-and-mortar schools.
Board members also had concerns about the charter’s student-to-teacher ratios and the role of the adult, at-home “learning coach” who would have to help the child with his or her lessons, communicate with teachers and mark attendance on an almost full-time basis.
“We make it very clear that if the student isn’t going to have the support of a responsible adult at home, this program probably isn’t going to work,” Butz said. “It’s a big commitment, especially in the primary grades.”
Butz said the average caseload for a kindergarten to third grade teacher would be around 60 — a number that raised eyebrows for the Board.
“I know those kinds of numbers can make you open your eyes and go, ‘This is crazy,’” Butz said. “That’s a number that is very manageable. You’re not dealing with crowd control, you’re working with families on a one-to-one basis.”
Butz added that the caseload was not that different from a traditional teacher with five classes of 25 to 30 students.
“I firmly believe schools like this very well prepare students for the rigors of college,” Butz said, adding his own son attended high school online.