Online charter program seeks inroad into local schools
By Kalyn Belsha and Emily McFarlan Miller firstname.lastname@example.org | email@example.com March 17, 2013 5:10PM
Baez Julissa, 7, works on creating a masterpiece during an art class Friday at Cambridge Lakes Charter School in Pingree Grove. March 23, 2012 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media
Indian Prairie School District 204: 5 p.m. today, Crouse Education Center
Naperville Community Unit School District 203: 5 p.m. today, Administrative Center
Burlington Central Community Unit School District 301: 6 p.m. today, Central High School, 44W625 Plato Road, Burlington
West Aurora School District 129: 6 p.m. today, West High School
Elgin School District U46: 7 p.m. today, U46 Educational Services Center, 355 E. Chicago St., Elgin
St. Charles Community Unit School District 303: 7 p.m. today, District Administration Center, 201 S. 7th St., St. Charles
Wheaton-Warrenville Community Unit School District 200: 7 p.m. today, Administration Building
Kaneland Community Unit School District 302: 7 p.m. today, Harter Middle School
Yorkville Community Unit School District 115: 8 p.m. today, District Office
Plainfield Community Consolidated School District 202: 8:30 p.m. today, Administrative Center
Carpentersville-based Community Unit School District 300: 6 p.m. Tuesday, Professional Development Center at Westfield Community School, 2100 Sleepy Hollow Road, Algonquin
Batavia Public School District 101: 6 p.m. Tuesday, Rosalie Jones Administration Center
Oswego Community Unit School District 308: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oswego East High School
DeKalb Community Unit School District 428: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Educational Center
Sycamore Community Unit School District 427: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sycamore Middle School
East Aurora School District 131: 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, McKnight Service Center
Valley View Community Unit School District 365U: 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 27, Administrative Center
Updated: April 19, 2013 6:06AM
Residents of more than a dozen Fox Valley school districts will get their chance to ask questions about a proposed charter school that would serve students online, rather than in a classroom.
The Illinois Virtual Charter School @ Fox River Valley would be governed by a St. Charles nonprofit, with curriculum provided by for-profit online education giant K¹² — facing criticism in other states for its achievement scores and other issues. Local districts also are concerned the program will take money away from local classrooms.
Public hearings are scheduled through March 27 in districts around the area, and a representative from K¹² will be at each meeting to answer questions.
Those hearings are scheduled for today for Elgin School District U46 and Tuesday for Carpentersville-based Community Unit School District 300.
And while U46 Board of Education President Donna Smith said she isn’t entirely opposed to the idea of a charter school, “I think there are better ways to use our dollars in our district to provide better education for our students.”
“Pulling the money out of our district and putting it into a charter school for maybe 400 of our students is going to be a great loss to our finances, so being fiscally responsible and supporting a charter school at the same time will cause us some difficulties,” Smith said.
The nonprofit Virtual Learning Solutions filed a proposal on Feb. 14 with 18 local school districts seeking approval of a five-year charter for the Illinois Virtual Charter School @ Fox River Valley. The online charter school would open this fall in St. Charles and provide off-campus alternative learning options for students in kindergarten to 12th grade.
School boards will have 30 days after the public hearings to decide if they will accept the charter school’s application for a five-year contract, deny it or let the independent Illinois State Charter Commission decide what to do. If school officials deny the application, Virtual Learning Solutions will appeal the decision to the commission, according to the charter application. (See accompanying story.)
Whom would it help?
In its proposal, Virtual Learning Solutions said its Fox Valley charter school would offer students a “rigorous” curriculum aligned to Illinois learning standards, including the new Common Core.
That curriculum is structured for students who may have dropped out of school, who aren’t meeting state standards on the ISAT or are lacking enough credits to graduate, it said. It also could be a good fit for athletes in training, musicians, students with health concerns, students frustrated by the slow pace of their classes or those who simply prefer to learn online.
Classes could range from introductory math, science and history to Advanced Placement calculus and chemistry.
Each student would be given an individualized learning plan to follow and would receive Web-based lessons, related books and other materials. Each could complete lessons from home — or anywhere else with an Internet connection.
The charter estimated 500 students would enroll in the 2013-14 school year, with as many as 2,000 by the fifth year.
That sounds similar to the Illinois Online Charter School, part of The Cambridge Academy. That was added in 2010 to the charter for Cambridge Lakes Charter School in Pingree Grove.
The District 300 charter school has used K¹² to offer individual virtual courses to its students performing two grades above or below their age levels, and charter holder Northern Kane Educational Corp. added the Illinois Online Charter School to expand its programming to high school students.
Northern Kane did not return requests for comment from The Courier-News.
Still, there isn’t much precedent for a multi-district online charter school, although the proposed Illinois Virtual Charter School @ Fox River Valley would be somewhat similar to K¹²’s California Virtual Academies.
Randall Greenway, vice president of school development for K¹², said it was “not so clear” what would happen if only a few of the Fox Valley school districts approve the charter proposal. He acknowledged that if all 18 approve it, then the charter would have to report to 18 different “masters.”
“That’s a very complex and problematic situation,” he said.
“Virtual Learning Solutions is a newly formed organization with no prior experience as an entity in school operations,” according to the application.
That’s why it said the nonprofit would contract with K¹², a publicly traded company based in Herndon, Va., that is worth $767 million. K¹² would provide the curriculum and the administrative services for the Fox Valley online charter school.
K¹², which got into the online education field back in 2001, said it currently manages 47 online or blended public schools across the United States.
Costs and concerns
At a February meeting, West Aurora School District 128 Board of Education members expressed concern about the lack of control they would have over the proposed virtual charter school’s curriculum. They also were concerned about a possible loss of funding to the local school districts.
If the charter proposal is approved, each school district would negotiate with the charter to determine how much money the district would pay per student. Illinois charter law says the sum would range from 75 to 125 percent of what the district normally spends per child.
For example, that payment this year would have been $6,980 to $11,635 per student from West Aurora schools.
Greenway says the Illinois Virtual Charter School @ Fox River Valley would start by asking for 84 percent.
“This is a savings for the taxpayers of Illinois,” he said.
But local districts are worried they may not be refunded if a student chooses to leave the charter and re-enroll at their traditional school.
The proposed virtual charter school also was a hot topic Thursday at the first board candidate forum in U46.
Most of the six candidates running for three seats of the U46 Board of Education agreed with candidate Linda Campos-Moreira of Elgin, who said she’s “not fundamentally opposed” to charter schools. But, she noted, their results are mixed.
Meantime, candidates Gary Percy of Elgin and Bartlett Trustee Frank Napolitano Bartlett agreed that anything which gives parents choices is, in Percy’s words, “inherently good.”
“I look at charter schools as competition, and I think competition is good. It makes us all better,” Napolitano said.
Nationwide, other districts have raised red flags about online schools managed by K¹².
In February, NBC in Nashville found that teachers at K¹²’s Tennessee Virtual Academy were asked via email to delete some failing grades. Florida’s Department of Education is investigating K¹² because of reports the company used uncertified teachers, according to NPR’s StateImpact program.
The Arizona Republic also found that many students in that state dropped out of K¹² and other online schools.
Still, District 300 spokesperson Allison Strupeck said its board of education is “looking forward” to hearing the full proposal from Illinois Virtual Solutions at its special meeting Tuesday. “We are open to hearing the details of this proposal and will ask clarifying questions as needed,” Strupeck said.