Clark Eselgroth does schoolwork at N.C. Connections Academy after participating in an advanced dance program at the International Ballet Academy in Cary when most others his age are in classrooms or science labs. Eselgroth, a 14-year-old sophomore from Cary, sought a virtual school as a way to balance school with the hours of daily work required to realize his goal of becoming a professional dancer. Travis Long tlong@newsobserver.com
Clark Eselgroth does schoolwork at N.C. Connections Academy after participating in an advanced dance program at the International Ballet Academy in Cary when most others his age are in classrooms or science labs. Eselgroth, a 14-year-old sophomore from Cary, sought a virtual school as a way to balance school with the hours of daily work required to realize his goal of becoming a professional dancer. Travis Long tlong@newsobserver.com

Education

Virtual charter schools were an experiment in NC. Should they continue to stay open?

By T. Keung Hui, Lynn Bonner And David Raynor

khui@newsobserver.com

lbonner@newsobserver.com

November 07, 2017 01:41 PM

UPDATED November 13, 2017 04:03 PM

RALEIGH

North Carolina’s two online charter schools are both considered low performing by the state, but the leaders of the schools say they should be allowed to stay open on a more permanent basis.

N.C. Connections Academy and the N.C. Virtual Academy are both in the third year of a four-year pilot program testing the concept of online charter schools, meaning they’re only open until 2019 unless state lawmakers act. Nathan Currie, superintendent of Connections Academy, asked state lawmakers Tuesday to make the program permanent and to increase funding given to virtual charter schools.

Currie said some students and teachers are reluctant to be at the virtual school since it could be closed in 2019.

“We’re asking that this pilot status be looked at and ultimately removed because there are hundreds and even thousands of kids and teachers that would benefit from our model,” Currie said.

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Joel Medley, head of the Virtual Academy, didn’t outright ask for the pilot program to be extended. But he told lawmakers that the academy was meeting state requirements that traditional charter schools would need to follow to get a full 10-year renewal.

Most members of the Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee didn’t give their opinion Tuesday about extending the virtual programs. But Rep. Larry Pittman, a Cabarrus County Republican, praised the work being done by the schools.

“I personally would like to see you have an opportunity to extend this,” Pittman said. “I don’t know if we’ll make it permanent. I don’t know whether we have the votes to do that, but I think we ought to give you some kind of extension.”

Sen. Joyce Waddell, a Mecklenburg County Democrat, was more skeptical.

“Could this program not be done in the traditional schools, brick and mortars, as a component of what’s going on?” she asked.

Currie said traditional schools don’t have teachers who are trained to work in an all-virtual setting.

Online charter schools have been a source of national and local controversy. Supporters say they provide more education options for families while critics have pointed to their poor performance and efforts in some states to shut them down.

The State Board of Education reluctantly approved the two virtual charter schools in 2015 after state lawmakers passed a law requiring the state to allow a four-year pilot program for two companies. Two for-profit companies stepped forward to submit applications.

The N.C. Virtual Academy is part of K12 Inc., a public company that posted $9 million in profits in 2016.

Connections Academy is part of Baltimore-based Connections Education, which itself is owned by the international company Pearson, which publishes textbooks and sells a range of education products for children, college students and adult workers. Pearson had a $3.2 billion loss in 2016 after it took a large write-down in the value of its U.S. higher education business.

Each school has grown to serve more than 2,000 students from around the state. But both schools earned Ds from the state in their first two years for their academic performance. Earning those low grades and falling short of expectations for student growth landed both schools the status of “low-performing.”

Connections Academy’s math grade improved from an F to a D in its second year, and its reading grade improved from a C to a B, even though its overall grade remained a D.

K12’s N.C. Virtual Academy did not do better in the second year, earning an F in math and a C in reading. But Medley said Tuesday that the Virtual Academy is comparable academically with Durham Public Schools, the county where it’s located, in every subject except math.

“We know we have more work to do,” he said.

Leaders of both schools promoted how they’re serving students whose needs aren’t being met by other schools.

“For many students, it’s very advantageous from an academic standpoint that they’re not faced with bullying or their district not offering some academic courses,” Currie said..

Bridget Phifer, chairwoman of the board of Connections Academy, said the school allowed her daughter to keep up educationally while still spending time each day with her father when he was hospitalized for two months.

“We just needed something very flexible,” Phifer said.

Currie said the ability to keep the virtual schools running is jeopardized by inadequate funding. He said virtual schools aren’t cheaper to run than traditional schools since they have costs such as helping subsidize Internet access and computers for low-income families.

Currie said legislators must increase funding so virtual schools receive as much as traditional charter schools.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui