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Carroll pulls plug on virtual school

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The statewide option is ending, but local students will still be able to take classes online. Only five of the academy's 350 students are from Carroll.

By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

HILLSVILLE — Carroll County educators have pulled the plug on the first statewide virtual school after mounting concerns.
Few local students taking advantage of the service and demands on the school system’s staff time are two factors that eventually short circuited the program known as the Virtual Academy of Virginia, according to Schools Superintendent Strader Blankenship.
“Out of that 350 students, only five were Carroll County students,” he said.
Carroll County had partnered with online learning company K12 to provide opportunities for an at-home curriculum, but the contract that made that possible comes up for renewal in 2013, the superintendent noted.
Educators notified K12 by letter in January that, if they decided to continue the program, they would send out a request for proposals to multiple vendors, following state procurement regulations, he said.
(Of 19 such vendors in Virginia, 10 met the qualifications for the virtual school.)
When the school board members asked Blankenship to start the proposal process in March, the discussion carried over into other areas, such as liability for special education students in the virtual program, the low number of Carroll residents using the online offerings and the amount of staff time that the effort absorbed.
The schools’ financial director, special ed supervisor and secondary education supervisor “were spending a lot of time on students that didn’t live in the boundaries of Carroll County,” Blankenship recalled.
Further discussion on these matters in April led Blankenship to recommend not continuing with the statewide virtual classes, but continue it for people in Carroll County, he said.
Ending the offerings had nothing to do with the quality of the K12 program, Blankenship stressed. The company, as well as the Virginia Department of Education, helped Carroll schools navigate these previously uncharted waters.
“Carroll County was the first to do this, so we have run the gauntlet of what it to took to make that happen,” the superintendent said. “Everybody’s been really helpful in making that happen c K12 bent over backwards.”
All the complications hadn’t yet been worked out.
For example, Blankenship mentioned Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s opinion in regards to virtual schools and special education responsibilities. The opinion said that the local school system where a student in a virtual program lives could be responsible for that child’s individualized education program. But, as the student was in a virtual school, that school system may not know anything about that child.
In the end, that would mean that the home locality could write the program, that the virtual school’s host locality would be responsible for it and that the company would administrate that educational plan, Blankenship said. That would be getting a lot of different people involved in a special education student’s instructional program.
For the Virtual Academy of Virginia, 11.4 percent of the students enrolled from 29 different localities were special education students, the Carroll superintendent said. “It made it almost unmanageable.”
Reaching out across the state to attract students with the virtual program did mean more money for the Carroll schools, Blankenship confirmed. It brought in about $200,000 a year, depending on the number of students, through the program totally paid for with state funds.
K12 also got a portion of those state funds. The superintendent noted that K12 purposefully sought out a locality that got a higher share of education funding from the state to pay for the virtual school.
Carroll used the money it got from the virtual program to build up its textbook funds.
Local homeschool students can remain in the virtual school, if they want to.
“We realize some parents and students are in a bind here, but our board was trying to do what’s best for our system,” Blankenship said.
The superintendent sees a need for online school options, but added the state could simplify the matter greatly by tackling the matter themselves.
“If the state’s funding it, it doesn’t because an issue for the locality in trying to make it work,” he said.