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The Lawrence school district is preparing to take full control of Lawrence Virtual High School, a charter school that until recently had been run by a private company.
The move comes as district officials begin to question the effectiveness of virtual schools generally. The future of the Lawrence program will depend on whether it can improve its academic performance.
“If we can do it well, we plan to continue,” Lawrence Superintendent Rick Doll said. “It's all about quality for me. There is a need across Kansas, as evidenced by the enrollment we have, but we've got to do it well.”
At the end of the last semester, the Lawrence district took over management of LVHS from K12 Inc., a private company that had been running the school, after it posted a graduation rate of just 26.3 percent. That compared to 88 percent for Lawrence High School and 94 percent for Free State High School.
For the rest of this year, however, the school is still employing K12 Inc. instructors and is using the company's curriculum. Next year, though, courses at the school will be taught by district employees, although the school intends to continue using K12 Inc.'s curriculum.
Keith Wilson, principal at the school, said there are about 15 instructors for the virtual high school, all of whom are K12 Inc. employees. Doll said the number hired for next year will depend on enrollment.
Like most virtual schools in Kansas, Lawrence Virtual School enrolls students from throughout the state, not just from Lawrence. In fact, another virtual school, Kansas Connections Academy, affiliated with the Elkhart school district in southwest Kansas, plans to hold informational meetings in Lawrence in May in hopes of enrolling local students in that program.
Virtual schools have been operating in Kansas since at least 1998, when the Basehor-Linwood district opened its virtual school. The number of virtual schools operating in Kansas has more than doubled since then, from 40 in the first year to 93 this year, according to information on the Kansas State Department of Education website.
Many of them are operated on contract with private companies like K12 Inc., or Pearson, which operates Kansas Connections Academy.
Wilson said he thinks the shift to district-employed teachers will not only improve the school, but also make it stand out in an increasingly competitive market.
“The human element is the most important element in the blended model, in the virtual model, in whatever model you're looking at,” Wilson said. “I want teachers that know Kansas. I want teachers that know Lawrence. I want teachers that know the Midwest values and state expectations and district content and so on, rather than someone located somewhere else in the country that may not have the buy-in, understanding and sensitivity to our district and state needs.”
But students from virtual schools in Kansas routinely score far below the district or statewide averages on state assessments, particularly in math, according to KSDE.
Last year, for example, nearly 45 percent of the students at LVHS scored below state standards on the math assessment, compared to only 15 percent for the district as a whole and 19 percent statewide.
Kansas Connections Academy fared slightly better, with 40 percent of its 11th grade students scoring below state standards — including 33.3 percent at the lowest, “below basic” level. That was an improvement over 2012, when more than half of its students failed to meet state math standards. Districtwide, however, only 10 percent of Elkhart students failed to meet the standards.
“This is my second year with Kansas Connections Academy,” Principal Jerald Rash said in a phone interview. “That's the first question I asked, because I was looking at the data trying to figure out, how can we make virtual education more meaningful with mathematics. And that's something that's really been a focus area for us.”
“We haven't figured out the answer yet,” he said. “We're trying hard. And I feel like in some cases, we've really got to coach up our families and say hey, we've got to spend more time on math.”
Doll said he thinks there are two possible explanations for why virtual schools tend to post lower test scores. One is that virtual schools, by their nature, draw students who may already have been having problems in traditional brick-and-mortar schools.
But Doll said he thinks another answer lies in the business model of for-profit companies that operate virtual public schools.
“For-profits tend to be in the business of enrolling lots of kids, and then not serving their needs, which is exactly why we're taking the high school over,” Doll said.