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Virtual school can continue in Carroll

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Gov. McDonnell steps in to ensure future of Virginia's only virtual academy, based in Carroll County schools.

By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

HILLSVILLE — The General Assembly-triggered funding crisis for the Virginia Virtual Academy has passed for now, an official with the K12 company told the Carroll School Board on April 12.
Gov. Bob McDonnell took action to save the online school that provided educational opportunities to around 400 students across the state, an effort facilitated by K12 and the Carroll school division, recapped Suzanne Sloane of K12 in an update to the school board.
“Our parents and our kids are hoping for another great school year with Carroll County,” she said, noting that it’s time to renew the contract between the county and the schools.
Though the partnership between K12 and Carroll schools got a boost from McDonnell’s support of virtual schools, after only one year of the program state legislators proposed some changes to funding methods, she recalled. General Assembly members also proposed to cap enrollment at 350, and that would have been 50 fewer than Carroll’s own cap of 400.
An amendment went before the state Senate saying as much on Feb. 26.
“It happened really sort of in the dark of night,” Sloane said. “We were very surprised at K12 and I think many across the state of Virginia were very surprised.”
When the enrollment cap came up, the virtual school had 357 students. That made Sloane wonder if she was supposed to select seven students to be removed from the program.
“They also wanted to, as you know, reverse the current funding model to have the money follow the student from their locality,” she said.
The governor had 30 days from the legislation passing to do something about it, Sloane noted.
It helped that McDonnell is a fan of virtual education. Virtual school students had even been to visit him at the governor’s mansion, where they got a lesson about how a bill becomes a law, she said.
“On that 30th day, he struck the wording from the amendment,” Sloane recalled. “He was saying, ‘No, we don’t need a cap and we don’t need a funding change at this time.’”
That language went back to the House, and delegates voted overwhelmingly — 94 to 6 — backing the governor’s decision on the amendment.
The vote in the Senate, where the amendment originated, was much closer — 23-17.
“So what does all this mean?” Sloane said. “It means we are allowed to continue with no cap … and the current funding in place.”
The decision on funding methods is not over yet, she added. Both Sloane and Carroll Schools Superintendent Greg Smith are on a short list to serve on a committee to study virtual school funding.
Five different funding model ideas have been floated. Sloane said they will work out those ideas over the next year.
Sloane went on to give a general progress report on Virginia Virtual Academy and its successes.
In the second year of Carroll’s virtual school, the student population jumped by 340 percent over the 85 enrolled originally.
The school has a deadline of June 1 for the students to enroll for next year, and already 218 current students have said they want to return, Sloane said.
Without any marketing but word of mouth, another 230 applications from new students have already come in, she said. So, it looks like enrollment is already at or near full capacity.
When school started, there were 400 students in the virtual academy, Sloane said. That has dropped back to 343 students in good standing after monthly progress and attendance reviews.
Breaking down the student population, about 13 percent are in special education, about one-third are eligible for free and reduced-price meals and about 10 percent are from active military families, she said. K12 uses free and reduced lunch eligibility as a way to determine waivers for the out-of-district fee.
About half of the enrollees had previously been enrolled in another public school system, Sloane said. About 132 of the students had been home-schooled and 22 students enrolled in the virtual academy’s kindergarten.
Students came from at least 70 school districts across Virginia, with clusters enrolling from places like Fairfax and other localities in eastern and northern parts of the state.
Enrollees have the opportunity to socialize with each other on the many field trips the classes take, including Busch Gardens, Natural Bridge Zoo, the governor’s mansion and Hillsville’s Christmas parade, which happened to be snowed out last year.
K12 has boosted its website capabilities for students and parents, including additions of daily and weekly lesson plans and a two-week course that started July 26 to teach the children how to be online learners.
Test preparation classes are offered to go over things that will be on Standards of Learning tests in their courses, like Algebra 1, Sloane said.
The website now features better reporting capabilities so teachers can see where students need more review in a subject, she said.
The virtual academy even offers some high school labs online, Sloane said. If the academy were to decide to offer high school classes, they’d get support like a guidance counselor to help them get into the college of their choice.
In terms of attendance, most students have logged in 900 of the 990 hours needed for the school year, she said. They haven’t had any snow days since they work from home.
Most students will finish May 13 — the original ending date for the Carroll school year before the snow days, Sloane noted.
About 75 percent of the students have met their academic progress goals in the core courses of history, science, math and reading, and about 90 percent of students have reached their goals in math and reading, she added. About 12 percent are working on courses one year above their grade level.
K12 officials have determined that 10 ninth grade students are eligible to return for the 10th grade and 24 eighth graders have expressed an interest in taking their ninth grade classes online, Sloane said. So that’s 30 possible students for high school classes if the Carroll schools wanted to expand into more secondary level course work.
Mark Burnette, director of secondary education for Carroll schools, shared some concerns about that idea.
When students enter the ninth grade, they also enter into an educational cohort that gets tracked through the rest of their school career, he explained.
“Once they enter that cohort, we’re responsible for those students and their graduation,” he noted. “If we can’t find those students once they leave us… they become a drop-out and that counts against our accreditation.”
There are also questions about how well the Carroll schools’ classes would match up with the online versions, he said.
There are a lot of questions about the terms of graduation requirements and more.
These are issues that will have to be worked out if the Carroll schools are going to offer high school classes online, Smith said. But the program so far has been going well.
At the end of the discussion, School board member Reginald Gardner made a motion to continue with the virtual school for another year with the number of enrollment to be negotiated in the contract.
The motion was approved unanimously after a second from Harold Golding.