COLUMBIA, SC — Leaders of the state’s charter school district fear its fledgling online schools are becoming a “dumping ground” for the state’s most at-risk students.
Students in danger of failure or, in some cases, expulsion are quitting their traditional public schools midyear to enroll in online charter schools – sometimes at the recommendation of guidance counselors and teachers, they say.
“Kids say, ‘We were told to come to you,’” said Stephanie Cagle, principal of S.C. Provost Academy, a statewide online charter school in its fifth year of operation. “The perception is we’re an alternative setting (for students struggling behaviorally), and that can’t be further from the truth.”
Most of the suspicion of dumping comes in the form of stories that students and their parents share with virtual school leaders during the enrollment process, those leaders say.
To get to the bottom of the issue, the S.C. General Assembly has directed the online charter schools to report to the state Department of Education information about when and why students enroll this year.
State education leaders want to know whether traditional public school districts are directing students in danger of getting expelled or failing academically to online schools when it isn’t in the student’s best interest. In part, the virtual schools suspect the traditional schools are sending them at-risk students to avoid their dropout or failure counting against the traditional school.
The charter school district pointed to a 2011 letter, which it provided to The State, as an example of a traditional school possibly handing off an at-risk student.
In the letter, a Charleston County school district associate superintendent writes to a parent to say that a division of that county’s board of trustees would allow a student to withdraw from high school and enroll in an online school “in lieu of expulsion.”
That idea was not the district’s, said Jason Sakran, district spokesman. Instead, the board offered that alternative at the request of the parent, he said. The incident was isolated, Sakran said, adding the district has an intervention program for students in danger of expulsion.
Asked whether they had heard of public schools referring students at-risk of failure or expulsion to online schools, officials at two Midlands school districts and the Greenville school district said they were unaware of the practice.
Greenville schools spokesman Oby Lyles said if someone in his district ever has recommended an online school, it would be one of many options given a student looking for an alternative education. “But nobody would refer them specifically to a virtual charter school,” he said.
Lexington 1 and Richland 2 officials also said they do not recommend students to attend online charter schools. The districts have their own intervention programs to help students struggling academically or in danger of expulsion, they said.
‘Lost in the shuffle’
But online schools leaders say enrollment numbers show their schools are attracting more at-risk students, some transferring from other school districts after school starts.
Ellen Ray, principal of S.C. Whitmore School, said that online charter school began its 2011 school year with about 140 students. Another 315 enrolled a month into the school year. To date, 213 of those new students have withdrawn from the school. Another 70 never attended a single class.
“That kind of growth does make you sit up and pay attention, so we began to research where these referrals are coming from.”
The burst in enrollment occurred “coincidentally around the same time as a semester break,” Ray said, adding, “Oftentimes, students that were failing would be referred to us.”
Provost Academy principal Cagle said she has heard similar reports from students at her online charter school.
There, one in 10 students who enrolled last year reported having a history of being expelled from school, and 32 percent said they had quit another school mid-year to enroll in the online school, she said.
More than 40 percent of incoming students were at risk of failure for other reasons, she added. Of the roughly 900 students who enrolled throughout the year, 265 were 18 or older and 103 had been out of school for a least a year, two groups more likely to fail, she said.
Even excluding any dumping, online charter schools already attract some at-risk students, said Wayne Brazell, superintendent of the statewide charter school district, currently in its sixth year of operation.
Those who do not understand what is expected of them perform poorly, he said. Some drop out. “Here’s the sad thing, after that, many of them got lost in the shuffle. We don’t hear from them again, and they become a dropout for our schools.”
Charter school leaders say they want to ensure that students are being referred to online schools for the right reasons.
Online schools typically serve a variety of students whose circumstances make an online education more desirable. Students with jobs that require travel or children at home, and students who have social anxiety or are bullied tend to thrive in an online setting, online educators say.
But some online students do not realize that they are responsible for setting their own schedule and completing work on their own. In some cases, more basic things, such as a reliable Internet connection and computer, get overlooked, school leaders said.
Amanda Ebel, principal of S.C. Connections Academy, said some students view an online school as “an easy way to get their diploma or finish up.”
Right now, those students and parents tend to “shop around (among the online schools) to see which one is the less painful,” said Cherry Daniel, principal of the S.C. Virtual Charter School.
Online school leaders say high dropout rates, low on-time graduation rates and fluctuating enrollment numbers are concerns for their schools, which are trying to compete academically with traditional schools.
Last year, the state district’s online schools averaged about 8,000 students. But enrollment reached 12,000, meaning about 4,000 students withdrew, according to the charter school district.
While the state’s high-school dropout rate was 2.5 percent last year, four of the five online schools had higher rates – ranging from 4.4 percent to 25.4 percent. The fifth online high school reported a 1 percent dropout rate.
Online schools also are among the state charter district’s lowest academic performers. On-time graduation rates range from 10 to 35 percent, less than half the 73 percent average of similar schools demographically.
The online schools want to overcome those negatives.
S.C. Provost Academy received an “F” letter grade last year, but improved by more than 45 points to a “C” this year.
Cagle, the school’s principal, said the improvement stems from the school offering more interventions for struggling students. Counselors and teachers call students and parents regularly, she said, and students have more opportunities for tutoring.
Reason to worry
In the numbers game, both sides stand to gain or lose.
Some leaders of the online charter schools say that when a failing student leaves a traditional school for an online school, that student’s performance reflects only on the online school.
But leaders of online schools have another reason to be concerned about their students and why they come, Virtual Charter School principal Daniel said.
Charter schools must meet certain academic standards or face probation and, eventually, closure, if the state charter school district’s directors deems them failing schools.
Of the six charter schools on probation with the state district earlier this year, four are virtual schools. Of those, three were on probation for significantly sub-par academic performance.
“There’s no question that virtual schools performing below average are very sensitive to it,” Daniel said.
“You’re going to have schools that are brick and mortar that score equally as low. We don’t want to call them out. The difference is they (traditional public-school districts) are not going to close those schools.”
S.C. Public Charter School District
Launched in 2008, the statewide district now has 24 schools, including seven operating online.
What is a virtual school?
An online school that allows students to work at a self-guided pace. Some allow students to work ahead and finish the year’s work early. Some offer an extended calendar to give students more time than a traditional school year offers.
Includes some instruction with a teacher through an online setting
Suitable for students who work, have jobs that require travel or other circumstances, such as children, that prevent them from attending a brick-and-mortar school
Are held to same accountability measures as other public schools
Reach Self at (803) 771-8658