North Carolina

Virtual charter schools in NC are still low performing. Are they improving, or failing?

North Carolina’s two online charter schools have been open since 2015, but both schools have been unable to shed their state status as low performing.

Statewide test results released this week show that N.C. Connections Academy and N.C. Virtual Academy received D grades for their academic performance for the 2017-18 school year. It’s the third year in a row that both public schools have gotten a D and also failed to meet academic growth expectations on state tests, putting them on the state’s list of “continually low-performing schools.”

School leaders and school-choice supporters say both charters are serving a valuable need and that their academic performance will improve over time. State lawmakers showed their support for the two schools this summer by passing legislation to let them stay open until at least 2023.

“The virtual public charter schools definitely have their work cut out for them,” State Schools Superintendent Mark Johnson said at a news conference this week. “But I would say let’s follow that closely and see.

“I’m optimistic that those results will improve because they are dealing with a population that needs a little extra help sometimes, and I think they’re adjusting to what those additional helps are.”

But critics say the results confirm that lawmakers were too hasty in giving both schools a four-year extension. The two schools were initially only guaranteed to be open until 2019.

“They’ve failed in every other state they’ve been tried in,” said Kris Nordstrom, education finance and policy consultant for the left-leaning N.C. Justice Center’s Education and Law Project. “It’s no surprise that they’re failing here.”

Go to https://bit.ly/2wGEwP6 for a Charlotte Observer/News & Observer searchable database of results for every North Carolina public school. Results are also available at http://www.ncpublicschools.org/accountability/reporting/ on the state’s website.

Online charter schools have been a source of national and local controversy. Critics point to academic issues with online schools in other states.

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 what was originally a four-year pilot program for two companies. Two for-profit companies, K12 Inc. and Pearson, stepped forward to submit applications.

Nordstrom was a state legislative staffer when the law creating the virtual charter schools was passed. He says lobbyists were heavily involved in crafting the legislation.

After getting their foot in the door, interest has been high with both schools having more than 2,000 students.

“There’s demand for the school,” said Joel Medley, head of the N.C. Virtual Academy. “Families want to come here. There’s a reason they want to come here.”

Leaders of both schools have cited testimonials from families such as how they’re escaping bullying at traditional public schools or need the flexibility of taking online courses due to their extra-curricular schedules.

But it’s been a challenge academically at both schools, which have high percentages of low-income students.

In the most recent test results, both schools received a C grade in reading and an F grade in math. It was a step back for N.C. Connections Academy, which had gotten a B in reading and D in math the year before.

Both charters remained as low-performing schools even as the number statewide dropped.

“The annual state test scores are an important part of our overall evaluation of the school’s performance and we take the results seriously,” Nathan Currie, superintendent of N.C. Connections Academy, said in a statement. “While the school is out-performing the state in proficiency in reading, the results are not where we want them to be and we are implementing a series of measures to improve performance.”

Currie listed steps the school is taking such as hiring an additional principal, expanding opportunities for in-person tutoring and reducing class sizes to personalize instruction for students.

At the N.C. Virtual Academy, Medley said the latest test results show the school is trending in the right direction. While the school’s overall passing rate on state exams was 47.9 percent, Medley pointed to how scores are up on 15 of 17 state tests.

Medley said that it takes time to make sustainable change.

“There’s a lot here to celebrate,” Medley said. “But there’s room for improvement.”

Nordstrom is skeptical, pointing to how both schools finished at or near the bottom in the state on a score that assesses how much academic growth students showed this past school year. He said the state results are consistent with a national report released in 2015 by Stanford University that found an “overwhelming negative impact on student growth from attending an online charter school.”

“They aren’t learning at all in these schools,” Nordstrom said.

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