Home-grown virtual schools
By Jenette Sturges email@example.com September 23, 2013 11:02AM
A woman makes her feelings known about the Fox Valley online charter school plan during a recent meeting in Chicago. | Kalyn Belsha~Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 25, 2013 6:07AM
Five school districts in and around the Fox Valley are partnering to bring online education to students who want it.
And they’re quick to admit it’s because they want to beat private companies to the game.
Earlier this month, school administrators across five districts — Indian Prairie, Batavia, Kaneland, Wheaton-Warrenville and Naperville — announced a new venture in online learning, a Digital Learning Consortium, in which the participating districts will launch blended learning classes, part online and part in the classroom, using teachers and curriculum from the participating school districts.
The online learning program is aimed at students who may need a different school setting — home-bound due to illness, perhaps pursuing other interests as young athletes or actors who are away from school often, or simply students who need extra enrichment or credit hours outside the school day.
But, say administrators and school board members, it’s also an attempt to keep public education, whether in a school or on a computer, public.
“You will remember K12 and the school they were bringing to us to the tune of millions of dollars potentially going out of our coffers,” Indian Prairie Superintendent Kathryn Birkett told the school board and dozens of teachers at a Sept. 9 school board meeting. “When the moratorium ends in April and K12 can once again come forward we want to be ready.”
The trouble with K12
This spring, school boards in 17 districts around the Fox Valley fought hard against a proposed all-online charter school dubbed the Illinois Virtual Charter School @ Fox River Valley, a school that would have been governed by a St. Charles nonprofit, with curriculum provided by the for-profit online education giant K12 Inc. The five districts now collaborating on the proposed Digital Learning Consortium were among those fighting against the K12 plan.
Administrators and teachers decried the quality of curriculum and overall education that the K12 charter school might provide to students, while school boards balked at the price tag: K12’s initial proposal last fall would have charged Fox Valley school districts their per-pupil expense for each child that enrolled in the online school, with school districts contributing anywhere from $8,633 (Oswego) to $13,199 (Geneva) per student per year.
After all 17 school districts voted against the proposed Illinois Virtual Charter School @ Fox River Valley, the state legislature, led by State Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia (D-Aurora), passed a bill enacting a year-long moratorium on online-only charter schools.
Meanwhile, K12’s reputation has seen little redemption nationwide in the past year. In August, Tennessee quashed an attempt to open a second K12-run virtual school in the state. Tennessee already has a K12 virtual school, opened for the 2011-12 school year in the Chatanooga area, which has come under fire for producing test results “at the bottom of the bottom,” according to a state senator there who requested an inquiry into the school after students scored dead last in Tennesse on math exams.
In neighboring North Carolina, the state board of education halted a proposed K12 virtual school in August because the application failed to include information like the number of teachers it would hire, which tests it would administer and a management plan for the school.
K12 posted $708.4 million in revenue in 2012, and paid its CEO Ronald Packard more than $3.9 million that year.
Meanwhile, the company spent roughly $26.5 million on advertising in 2010, according to a New York Times investigation, while average teachers salaries hover around just $38,000, according to self-reporting website Glassdoor.com, putting the average at less than half the average teacher salary at, for example, the Wheaton-Warrenville School District.
During school board debates this spring, board members said the practices added up to a picture of a school that would not serve the Fox Valley’s children.
‘A place to stand our ground’
Still, whether the five-district online consortium would help keep K12 out of the Fox Valley’s school’s coffers or not remains to be seen, as do several of the details of the proposed online school.
For instance, administrators have not said whether the online school would be able to offer enough courses for its students to complete their school days entirely online. Nor have details like cost, either the total bill or how it would be split among the participating districts, been completely figured out.
That’s largely because the project is in such a preliminary stage, according to Indian Prairie School District officials.
This fall, it and the other four coalition school districts will be hiring on a consulting firm, Colorado-based Evergreen Education Group, which previously worked with the Illinois Virtual School from the Illinois State Board of Education, to sort out intergovernmental agreements between the districts and to review each district’s own internal policies about online learning.
By December, the districts hope to have a clearer understanding of what shape the online school would take, but board members seem to have high hopes.
“This is nothing like what K12 was offering when they came here to the district,” said Naperville School Board Vice President Terry Fielden. “This is a vast departure from that. It really sends a message to the state board of education, too, that this is the online learning that we would want to see anybody bring (to our district). If a charter school brought in some online learning we would want it to mimic this fashion. It gives us a place to stand our ground.”
Regardless of how the online charter school situation shapes up this spring across Illinois, the five-district consortium would offer several more options for online learning than students have now in the Fox Valley.
Most school districts now offer just one or two classes that can be taken fully online, typically, state-mandated consumer economics and health classes, with little teacher interaction.
Educators involved in the development of the Digitial Learning Consortium have instead emphasized that its courses will be blended. That students will do much of their learning and studying at a computer, but will also spend several hours of face-to-face time with instructors for more individualized attention.
The consortium also means economies of scale for the five districts and the opportunity to offer more classes with a larger pool of students and teachers.
Moreover, courses will be designed by teachers already in the Kaneland, Naperville or other participating schools, which means that the online students will learn from the same rigorous curriculum taught in their local school.
“In this program, the students will stay ours,” said Indian Prairie D204 Chief Academic Officer Kathy Duncan. “They will be ‘204’ students in a 204-sanctioned program. The drive really was to make sure we’ve got this right.”
That’s not only because the quality of Fox Valley students’ education is on the line, but also because, as April approaches and other companies and charter school proposals emerge, other districts may be on the search for ways to organize online learning.
“And then who knows what companies will come forward?” Duncan said. “We know we can do it better than them. This is pretty unique. We’re out there in front and were going to be watched.”