Next week is back-to-school week for students in the Lawrence school district. And for most of them, that means getting back into the routine of loading up their book bags, and either making the hike to their neighborhood school, or waiting for their parents or a school bus to haul them there.
But for roughly 1,500 of the district's students, going back to school won't involve “going” anywhere. They're the students enrolled in Lawrence's two “virtual” schools – one that serves students in grades K-8 and another that caters to high school students – where students and work entirely online from their homes.
And while virtual school enrollment has more than doubled in the last five years in Lawrence, they remain one of the least visible parts of the local school system, in part because nobody sees the teachers and students going in and out of buildings, but also because the vast majority of those students actually live outside the Lawrence school district.
District officials say they're growing increasingly concerned about low test scores in at the schools, both of which operate as charter schools that are managed, either in whole or in part, by a private corporation based in Herndon, Va., called K12 Inc., a for-profit company that operates online schools nationwide.
“I think we have some improvements to make, and I think you can look for us to be investigating how we can do a better job of that,” Lawrence Superintendent Rick Doll said.
Low test scores
According to state assessment data, half of the students tested at Lawrence Virtual High School in 2012 failed to meet state standards in math, and 18.5 percent failed to meet state standards in reading. Both of those are significantly higher than either the district-wide or statewide averages.
Math scores were also substantially lower at Lawrence Virtual School, which serves grades K-8, although reading scores tended to be much closer to the norm.
Among fifth-grade students, for example, 31 percent of the students scored below standards in math in 2012, compared to 11 percent for the district. But in reading, proficiency rates were almost identical, with only about 10 percent in each group scoring below state standards.
Asked if he was satisfied with those results, Doll emphatically said, “no.”
“I think that we are always looking to improve,” he said.
Lawrence Virtual School was launched in 2004 as an official “charter school.” Those are schools typically set up for special purposes, or to serve a particular sub-group of students, and are allowed to operate under different rules and procedures from regular schools.
Charter schools receive the same public funding as traditional schools. Many, but not all, are managed and operated by private companies.
LVS, which had 1,165 students last year, is owned and operated by the Lawrence school district. Its principal and its teachers are school district employees. But the curriculum that it uses – the subjects taught and the materials that go along with them – are purchased exclusively through K12 Inc.
The district also pays K12 Inc., about $110,000 a year for its marketing and advertising – what the contract calls “outreach services" – to recruit students.
LVS principal Keith Wilson said about 90 percent of all the students in both schools are from outside Lawrence. Of those, he said, 60 to 70 percent of the families that we serve are the traditional home-school families wanting, for whatever reason, to educate their children in their homes.”
“Another 30 percent or so are much more fluid," Wilson said. "For everyone of those students, there's a different story. Maybe they weren't experiencing success in the brick-and-mortar school for whatever reason. We've got a number of folks dealing with medical situations, and some are from military families who are overseas.”
Wilson said that mix helps explain the low test scores because many of the students are performing below grade level when they enter the school.
Lawrence Virtual High School, with 292 students last year, began later and is wholly owned and operated by K12. The principal, or “head of school,” and all of its teachers are K12 employees. The company is paid about $4,030 per student to run that school, the full amount provided for virtual school students under the state school finance formula.
During the 2012-2013 school year, the district paid K12 $1.8 million for curriculum and outreach for the K-8 school, plus another $1.1 million for operating LVHS.
Sarah Berger, the company-employed head of school, did not respond to a request to be interviewed for this story.
Rethinking virtual education
Although the virtual schools began as a specialized program for only a small, select group of students, Doll said online learning is increasingly becoming part of the regular school experience for all students in the district.
And for that reason, he said, there may be less of a need in the future to continue contracting with an outside company to provide that kind of education through a charter school.
“We're not there yet, and we probably have several years before we get there, but I can tell you that we're already having those discussions,” Doll said.
Last year, the district launched a pilot project to use so-called “blended learning,” a combination of online learning and traditional teacher-led instruction, in a handful of elementary, middle and high school classes. Starting this year, that pilot project is being expanded to 40 classrooms, including at least one in each building.
“So (the question is) not only are we satisfied with how we're doing virtual education right now, and we're not, but then also, what's the bigger picture in terms of how can we provide these services not only to kids who want to get their education completely virtual, but what about our kids,” Doll said. “What about our bricks-and-mortar kids who could use those offerings. That, to me, is the bigger picture that we ought to be moving toward.”