In Los Angeles,
a national charter network markets its program as an option for parents fearing the spread of COVID.
Stride Inc, a publicly traded company that operates the K12 virtual charter school network, promoted its California schools called California Virtual Academies in an ad encouraging parents to enroll. On Twitter, the company presents e-learning as providing “families with an option that is not only secure, but prioritizes student growth and success.”
But online charters are controversial even among supporters of charter schools, and previous research shows that virtual schools have poorer academic performance than traditional schools. The state cracked down on them amid a slew of financial mischief, including a virtual charter school where its two founders pleaded guilty to the felony charges of conspiring to steal public funds.
Yet enrollment in virtual charter schools has increased during the pandemic. Registrations at K12, one of the largest national operators, increased by 57% last year. In Los Angeles, which has more charter school enrollments than anywhere else in the country, its schools saw their enrollment increase by 40% compared to this period in 2019, according to the school.
The Los Angeles Unified School District has also seen an increase in the number of students enrolled in its online independent study program.
Honestly, I can’t imagine him setting foot on a campus right now.
Angela Covil, CAVA’s secondary school principal, said virtual schools are “teacher-supported” rather than “teacher-led”. Students meet their teachers every day for about an hour and a half to two hours in elementary and middle school and three to three and a half hours in high school. Students spend four to six hours in class each day. The program is accessible anywhere and includes videos and animations with built-in assessments, so teachers can track student progress, she said.
Some parents who recently enrolled their children have turned to schools that already had a virtual curriculum, rather than staying in a school district that was learning to teach online on the fly.
“We’ve been doing this for years and so we have all of these systems up and running,” Covil said.
She said there are generally three types of new parents who enroll their children: those with health issues, those who want stability in case COVID-19 worsens, and education in schools in district is back online, and those who have seen their child thrive in the online environment during the pandemic and I want that to continue.
Roxann Nazario is one such parent whose daughter, Scarlett, thrived in an online environment due to her social anxiety. Nazario said she saw a weight lift off Scarlett’s shoulders in March 2020 when schools closed.
Her charter college at the time, Girls Athletic Leadership School, quickly transitioned to an online program where instructional videos and homework were posted online through Google Classroom and students were not required to sit on Zoom. several hours a day. Nazario saw his daughter’s grades improve.
But the school changed course in the fall of 2020, requiring students to be on Zoom from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and Scarlett quickly burned out.
Nazario, who works as a parent engagement coordinator for parent rights advocacy group Speak UP, spoke to rave parents about an online charter called iLEAD and after meeting with teachers and teachers. school administrators, she enrolled her daughter in school, where live instruction is optional. .
“Honestly, I can’t imagine her setting foot on a campus right now. I think it would be very difficult for her, especially since it’s been so long,” Nazario said. “I’m excited to see how successful she can be with a very well established and very personalized program that I think will suit her, but we’ll see and assess that as we go.”
Virtual learning has its limits
But several studies have criticized cyber schools, finding that many of its academic programs are pale compared to traditional brick-and-mortar schools.
A national study from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University found that virtual charter schools across the country have a “crushing negative impact” on students.
“It was hopelessly bad,” said Macke Raymond, who led the study. “It was like the kids didn’t go to math school at all.” Although she noted that the 2015 study was based on data from 2013.
And in 2016, even the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a charter school advocacy group, warned lawmakers about the poor performance of virtual charters in a report.
More recent national research is needed, and Raymond said she is embarking on a new national study next month that will answer the question of whether online charters have improved.
“You would hope that a program as vulnerable as we showed in 2015 would kind of get back up through the bootstraps and do something different,” Raymond said.
Covil said she hopes parents will forget some of the negative publicity about virtual charters and do their own research.
“A lot of great things are happening in these schools,” said Covil. “There are some really thriving students. We have so many great things going on with our kids, and we hear so much great feedback from our parents.”
As teachers in traditional schools scrambled to change their curriculum online and students lacked the social interaction of being in a classroom with teachers and their peers, studies show children suffered a “learning loss” or a “COVID slide”.
A McKinsey & Company report for the 2020-21 school year found that, on average, students were five months behind in math and four months behind in reading at the end of the school year. And the achievement gap between low-income students and students of color and their white peers widened, with students in predominantly black schools ending the year with six months of “unfinished learning” and students in black and white. low-income schools with seven.
The NWEA used its adaptive MAP Growth assessments that schools can voluntarily give to their students three times a year to analyze the impact of the pandemic. The results of 5.5 million students in Grades 3 to 8 who took the tests showed that students made progress in reading and math in 2020-2021, but at a lower rate than before the pandemic.
For example, in spring 2021, median math scores declined 12 percentile points compared to spring 2019.
Following the release of the NWEA report, Stride Inc. released its own response, claiming that its students did not experience the same learning loss as their peers.
“In fact, they were more likely to hold on or advance academically than to slip,” he said.
CAVA itself was under investigation by the California Attorney General’s office before reaching a settlement of $ 8.5 million in 2016 for allegations the network posted misleading ads on student academic progress, parental satisfaction and class size.
For example, the network did not include a “large number of students whose test scores did not show a significant change” when it promoted the academic performance of its students, according to the complaint.
The state also alleged that schools were unduly inflating attendance figures, reaping more education dollars from the state, which are allocated based on average daily attendance.
The GA office was also investigating school services for students and families with limited English proficiency, and school support for students with special needs.
Under the settlement, schools did not admit any wrongdoing and settlement funds reimbursed the state for the cost of the investigation.
“Accessibility improvements were already in our internal plans and have not changed our multi-year capital plans,” said a spokesperson for K12. “We have always tried to continuously improve accessibility, mobility, tools for teachers and student engagement, and we will continue to do so.”
These types of academic issues and financial harms that occur in some virtual charters helped spark a two-year moratorium on new online charter schools signed by Governor Gavin Newsom in 2019, which was due to expire at the end of this year. year, but was extended until 2024.
In California, charter schools are state funded, but run independently. Traditional supporters of public schools oppose charter schools because they say the money is drained from district schools because state funding is based on enrollment.
For parents who want to keep their kids online this school year, the options are limited.
Newsom and the state legislature have ordered school districts to offer in-person instruction this fall, unless it is as part of an independent study program, but he authorized the independent study for a student “whose health would be endangered by in-person instruction, as determined by the parent or guardian.”
The legislature is preparing a new bill that aims to improve the independent study program, for example by establishing a minimum of live instruction per day.
“Many, many policy makers are trying to set a different standard in this conversation that they don’t hold district schools to, but they want to hold virtual charter schools,” Raymond said. “This is the story that takes place in California.”
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