Originally published in The Indianapolis Star – August 25, 2019
Stacy Taylor’s kitchen table is crowded. It’s covered in laptops, iPads, textbooks and paper worksheets, and there are three teenagers and Taylor’s 12year-old daughter sitting around it — all going to school online.
“Some days, it would be easier to say, ‘You know what, just get on the bus in the morning and go,'” Taylor said recently, laughing as she stood in the kitchen-turned-classroom of her Franklin home. “It gets a little crazy sometimes.”
But she doesn’t do that because — despite a controversy swirling around virtual schools — online education has worked for her daughter and her daughter’s cousins and friends who often join her to work in Taylor’s kitchen. They’re among thousands of elementary, middle and high schoolage Hoosier kids who are starting back at school by hopping online.
Virtual schools have come under a lot of fire in recent years for poor academic performance, sky-high teacher-to-student ratios and, most recently in Indiana, fraud. Two online schools — Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy and Indiana Virtual School — have been accused of inflating enrollment counts and defrauding the state of $40 million.
Lawmakers put new guardrails on virtual schools during the last legislative session, but critics of the programs say it’s not enough. A group of Democratic representatives has requested that lawmakers add virtual schools to a list of topics for the General Assembly’s study committee on education.
“Recent scandals surrounding both Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy highlight the need for swift action from the General Assembly to increase oversight and accountability of Indiana’s virtual charter program,” read a letter from the Democrats on the Indiana House’s education committee, written to House Speaker Brian Bosma.
As of its meeting last week, virtual schools had not been added to the committee’s study topics.
But for some kids, like Taylor’s daughter Sophie, virtual education seems to be what works best. And as the state looks at how to address the very real problems associated with some virtual schools, thousands of students are logging on and heading back to school from their kitchen tables, couches or, really, anywhere else they want.
Health problems lead some students to virtual schools
That’s great for Sophie, a seventh-grader who hasan immune deficiency that not only means she’s at the doctor’s office often but also makes a traditional school setting risky. She’s been enrolled at Indiana Connections Academy since kindergarten.
“Not having to worry about missing school and, like, that kind of stuff is really nice,” she said.
Most days, Sophie is joined by her cousins Tori and Abigayle Taylor. Tori, a high school senior, has been doing virtual school since the third grade. A combination of dyslexia and attention disorders left her struggling in a traditional school setting.
“I was just done with all the drama at school,” Abigayle said.
Family friend Ashlyn Myers will join them at Taylor’s house sometimes. She’s been in online school for six years. It was a better fit for her because of a medical condition that left her missing a lot of school days.
The kids work independently on their various devices — a laptop or tablet. Some classes are live lessons, during which students log on at the same time with a teacher for a fairly traditional classroom lesson. On the screen is often a set of prepared slides.
Many of these kids’ classes aren’t live, though. They log in whenever they’d like — though they have to log in each day — and can work through their assignments for that day in whatever order they choose. Abigayle said some kids will block their work, doing a whole week’s worth of math lessons one day and moving on to another subject the next.
She prefers to do a little of each class each day, as she would in a traditional school setting.
“I can’t do the same thing for the whole day,” Abigayle said.
Almost all of their materials are online, though they can get hard-copy textbooks. The school also sends materials for some classes, like for science.
With teacher’s video camera ready, class is in session
On the other side of the computer screen is a teacher, like Cara Stolle, also working remotely.
Stolle, in her third year teaching with Indiana Digital Learning School, sets up in a sunny office she renovated for the purpose. She sits at a large desk with a laptop, second monitor, video camera and headset. Sitting on the couch in front of her is Marci Atkinson, Stolle’s 14-year-old daughter, who is a freshman at the school.
It’s Marci’s second year attending school online. She prefers it, she said, because it’s less stressful than the traditional public school she had been attending.
“At a brick-and-mortar, there’s just so much bullying,” she said.
Elizabeth Sliger, head of school for Indiana Digital, said a lot of online students make the switch from a traditional school setting, at least in part because of bullying.
“Bullying is the number one reason,” Sliger said. “Almost all of our students report some type of bullying in their past.”
The online school is run through the Union School Corporation. The tiny, rural district serves about 300 kids in its traditional school settings. Sliger said the school could serve as many as 4,000 kids this year, from all over the state.
She’s heard the concerns about virtual education, she said. And she gets it. But not all virtual schools are the same, she said.
“There’s a wide variety of types of schools and levels of education,” Sliger said. “It’s no different in virtual.
“Don’t paint us with one brush.”
Marci has her own desk in Stolle’s office, where her fish Mushi and Memo live, but often prefers the comfortable couch.
A student’s grades rise: ‘Progress is being made’
Marci started online school last year after struggling in a traditional school setting. The transition to online school was bumpy; her grades in the first semester weren’t great. But, Stolle said, she brought them up in the second semester, and she’s expecting more improvements this school year.
“She had Ds her first semester,” Stolle said. “She had Cs the second semester. And so now we’re into our third semester. Progress is being made.”
And it works well for Stolle to work from home, where she can teach and serve as Marci’s learning coach. Students who attend K12 Inc. online schools, one of the largest providers, are required to have an adult serve as their learning coach.
Teachers need to be online by 8 a.m. but Stolle said she prefers to get an early start and usually logs on by 6:30 or 7 each morning.
Last year, she taught four 50-minute-long classes and spent the rest of her day working on the individualized education programs for her special education students or planning the next day’s lessons. She also had meeting times, where she would talk with other staff or with students and parents.
This year, she’s transitioning to a new position, leading the school’s special education program and teaching a self-contained classroom for special-needs students with greater needs, rather than the kids she taught last year who were integrated into a standard classroom.
For teachers, Stolle said it’s not as different from a traditional school setting as some probably think.
Virtual learning, traditional challenges
She can see which of her students are present during live lessons, and there’s a chat function that allows students to ask questions. She still has to deliver the material in a way that’s engaging for her students and ensure that she’s differentiating her lessons to meet the needs of kids at various learning levels.
And there’s an advantage in that all the lessons are recorded, so kids who miss a class can catch up or they can rewatch a lesson on a concept they’re struggling with.
“Not only are they for students who were absent,” Stolle said, “but they are also for students who are reviewing and children who have difficulty.”
Like in a traditional school setting, there are still distractions.
At Taylor’s house, the kids are often distracted by each other.
For Marci, it’s the class chat room.
“This year, I’m not going to do that,” she said. “I’m going to pay attention, do my homework. After school’s done, then I’ll be able to goof off.”
And most virtual schools take field trips, where students get to meet their online friends and classmates.
“We’ve gotten to do, like, a lot of cool things over the years that are actually really fun,” Sophie said. “And we get to, like, meet new students and see our friends that we haven’t seen in a while.”
The future of virtual schools in Indiana is uncertain, especially if they continue to post dismal academic results. Most have failing grades on state performance reports and graduation rates below the state average.
But they are working for some Hoosier kids and enrollment doesn’t look to be slowing. As the two schools under investigation for fraud close, Sliger said, Indiana Digital Learning School is expecting record enrollment.
“Students are choosing online school for as many reasons as there are students,” she said. “We’re taking kids from every county in Indiana.”
To learn more about Indiana Digital Learning School, visit https://indls.k12.com/.