More than 30,000 Ohio students attend school online, skipping buses, cafeterias and classrooms to do their lessons entirely by computer, often at home, typing in tests and papers to be reviewed by a teacher far away.
That’s more than 12 times the number of students enrolled online in 2000, when Ohio’s first virtual school opened. And it makes Ohio a national leader: Only one state, Arizona, had more students enrolled full time in online schools in 2010-11, according to the annual “Keeping Pace” report by the Evergreen Education Group.
Most Ohio students enrolled in virtual schools, about 90 percent, attend one of the seven statewide online schools. The remainder are in digital academies that serve smaller areas.
Online schools draw students from everywhere – rich and poor school districts, low-performing and high-performing.
Part 3: Virtual academies are changing the experience of going to school
Last year, a Cleveland Plain Dealer examination found that students from each of the 97 school districts in Northeast Ohio had enrolled in online charter schools. The numbers ranged from a handful in some districts to more than 1,000 in Akron, which has its own digital academy, and more than 1,500 in Cleveland.
Although they are scattered around the state, the online students combined would make up the third-largest district in Ohio – about the size of the Cincinnati schools. All the online schools are charters, independently operated but publicly funded.
The first wave
The online schools where students skip the traditional classroom altogether may be only the first wave of Ohio’s online shift. The Ohio legislature’s recent passage of Senate Bill 316 encourages “blended” education – schools that mix online work with time spent with a teacher, or districts using more online learning in existing schools.
Creating more of a blended approach is a goal of Gov. John Kasich’s administration.
“Blended learning provides the opportunity to join the best aspects of both face-to-face and online instruction,” Kasich’s office concluded in a summary of SB 316 this summer.
Once dismissed as a fad or easy way out for unmotivated students, online classes have gained acceptance from many traditional educators and school districts.
“Online programs are here to stay,” said Robert Mengerink, head of Cuyahoga County’s Educational Service Center, which works with all districts in the county and this fall began offering districts an online curriculum for their students.
Mengerink said the quality of virtual programs has improved over time and students with proper motivation can learn well through them.
“As convenient as they are, they are not simple,” he said. “You can’t sleep in the back of the room in an online course.”
Susan Stagner, an executive for Connections Academy, a national network of online schools, wants online education to keep expanding in Ohio to keep pace with advances in other countries.
Already, the state has lifted a moratorium on creating new online schools, which had been imposed in 2005. In 2013, up to five new online schools can start in the state, though the Ohio Department of Education says none has yet announced plans.
“The dilemma in Ohio is we’ve got to move faster,” Stagner said at a recent seminar in Columbus on online education.
That’s the wrong approach, according to Gary Miron, co-author of national studies about online schools and their operators for the National Education Policy Center, which receives some funding from the National Education Association.
Miron said Ohio has fewer requirements for online schools than most other states for things like financial reporting, student-to-teacher ratios, and how long students have to stay in a school or pass state tests in order for schools to receive state money.
And for several years, Ohio legislators have postponed establishing rules about how online schools should teach and be evaluated. Last year’s state budget set a new deadline for making those rules: If the legislature doesn’t take action by January, standards set by the International Association for K-12 Online Learning will automatically take effect, potentially introducing new rules for how the schools must operate.
“It’s an exciting time right now,” said Miron, who supports online programs that have evidence of success. “But let’s figure things out because there are people raking in a lot of money. They may have good ideas, but we don’t have a good measure. How can we be sure that they work right or work better before we expand it?”
Miron, formerly a professor at Western Michigan University, is among those concerned that for-profit online schools do not report detailed financial information. He said he believes some make significant profits by offering students a subpar education.
Schools become big business
Most of Ohio’s full-time online schools are operated by local school districts and educational service centers – although they account for only about 10 percent of online enrollment. Districts such as Lakewood, Lorain and Akron have created their own digital academies as separate charter schools.
“It’s self-paced, but at the same time they’re not making it any easier for you. They’re pretty much putting your education in your hands.”
–TRECA Digital Academy student Mario Braxton
Many of those districts saw starting an online school, or offering online classes, as a way to hang on to state funding that would otherwise follow students to online charter schools or viewed it as a quick, cheap way to let students catch up on credits.
Online schools have clearly become a big business. The state paid online charter schools $209 million in 2010-11 to educate students – an average of $6,337 per student.
Most of Ohio’s statewide online schools are operated by – or have close ties to – private, for-profit companies.
Though their profit is not made public, the costs for providing a basic online education suggest they could be substantial. Publicly run online schools say they can do the basics – provide a computer, online curriculum and teachers – for from less than $3,000 to about $3,600 per student. That’s substantially less than what they receive from the state, although providing other services can add to their costs.
Mixed results for students
So far, results are mixed at both for-profit and district-run schools. Online students have lower graduation rates than those at traditional schools. They attend college at a lower rate. At the same time, other measures have shown online students learning as much as, or more than, students in many districts.
In 2010-11, all seven statewide online schools met value-added measures, criteria the state uses to determine if students make a year’s worth of academic progress in a year’s time.
Achieving a benchmark that a fifth of traditional districts did not meet in 2010-11 suggests students are learning, even if they may not meet proficiency standards.
Preliminary state report-card data released Wednesday showed that all of the statewide online schools failed to meet value-added in 2011-12.
Supporters say online learning isn’t for everyone but can legitimately help some students – those struggling to fit in or who have been targeted by bullying, for example. It allows others to move at their own speed or to take specialized classes that bricks-and-mortar schools don’t offer.
The publicly run TRECA Digital Academy gave Mario Braxton, 20, of Cleveland Heights, a chance to catch up after falling way behind after fathering a child. He is now almost finished with his diploma.
“It’s self-paced, but at the same time they’re not making it any easier for you,” Braxton said. “They’re pretty much putting your education in your hands.”
Janessa Moorman, 17, of Cleveland, enrolled at the new Nexus Academy in Cleveland this fall after being frustrated at another local charter school. Nexus, run by for-profit company Pearson and its national charter organization, Connections Academy, has one of the first “blended” programs in Ohio.
“In all honesty, it is better [than traditional schools]… You can get a lot more one-on-one time with the teachers. There, it’s huge class sizes, so there’s not a lot of interaction with them.”
–Nexus Academy student Cailyn Hess
Students come to the high school on Cleveland’s near East Side in the morning, alternating time between working on lessons on the computer and having 25-minute classes in small groups with a teacher.
The school has a physical fitness teacher and workout area, which falls far short of a full school gym but allows for a physical-education class that a fully online school can’t.
Janessa, who wants to work as a translator someday, said she loves being able to take Japanese at Nexus, along with Spanish. And she likes being able to just sit and do her work and get it done.
“There was a lot of kids at my school that didn’t care about education,” she said. “They fooled around in class. More than half of them didn’t do the work and it was harder to stay on task than it is here.”
She and classmate Cailyn Hess, 16, said teachers online can track your work, as well as how much time students spend on the material and where they are having problems, much more so than teachers in a traditional school can.
Cailyn, a former Mentor High School student whose family moved to Euclid, said that between online teachers and the ones at Nexus, she has lots of support. “In all honesty, it is better [than traditional schools],” Cailyn said. “You can get a lot more one-on-one time with the teachers. There, it’s huge class sizes, so there’s not a lot of interaction with them.”
Group promotes blended learning
Cincinnati-based KnowledgeWorks, an education advocacy group, has been one of the major supporters of mixing online education with traditional classroom work.
Lisa Duty, the group’s director of innovation, said combining the two can save districts money, or allow them to maintain course offerings even as budgets are cut.
Blended classrooms can also allow existing teachers to offer students more one-on-one help where needed, Duty said, while others complete work at their own pace.
“Students might like high-tech, but they need high-touch,” Duty said. “Students can get the best of technology and teaching time.”
Duty predicted that entirely online schools would lose popularity, as a mixed approach rises.
The program that the Cuyahoga County Educational Service Center started offering this year is another kind of blended approach. Students can take some classes online through the county system, or all of their classes.
Either way, they don’t leave their home school and enroll in a charter school. Instead, they remain students in the district and can participate in all extracurricular activities or some classes, then graduate with a diploma from that high school.
A private Oberlin kindergarten is trying its own blend this fall, mixing a regular teacher with Ohio Virtual Academy’s kindergarten program, operated by for-profit company K12 Inc.
Melanie Dove, administrator of the school and two other Child Garden locations, said her experience with Ohio Virtual Academy has worked well, so far. She said the students are making progress, and Ohio Virtual Academy teachers have offered a lot of support.
An initial group of five girls enrolled in the virtual academy as kindergartners but attend the Child Garden center all day, doing lessons online and off during the day. She cautioned that parents should not expect an online school to handle everything, particularly for lower grades.
She said parents should expect to be working with their children. “It kind of is a team effort,” Dove said. “People get it in their heads that a child can just do it themselves, but you have to have an adult to facilitate the program.”
Ohio Virtual Academy is the only school Annette Kenney’s 12-year-old son, James, and 10-year-old daughter, Deborah, have known. Kenney and her husband enrolled them in the online school rather than in their local Bedford School District because they weren’t impressed with the district’s academic performance or with reports of violence in the schools.
Kenney said her children socialize with other children at gymnastics and karate classes, church events and Ohio Virtual Academy get-togethers. And she says they’re well prepared to face the adult world.
“I can take my kids anywhere,” she said. “They get along with everybody. They haven’t had to deal with peer pressure and being cool. They’re just allowed to be themselves.”