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U46 cool to online charter school proposal

Updated: April 21, 2013 6:23AM

ELGIN — The last time a charter school proposal came to the Elgin School District U46 Board of Education, it was missing information, data, background — “the very pertinent questions simply were not asked,” said board member Joyce Fountain.

“I suspect this one will go the same way as that one,” Fountain said.

“This one” is the application submitted last month for an online charter school serving 18 separate school districts — the Illinois Virtual Charter School @ Fox River Valley, by St. Charles-based nonprofit Virtual Learning Solutions.

About 100 people filled the board room for a public hearing about the proposed charter school at the start of the regular board meeting Monday night.

Among them were Virtual Learning Solutions board president Sharnell Jackson and Stephanie Hargens of Virginia-based education giant K12. The two presented their proposal for the first-of-its-kind virtual charter school before answering a half-hour of skeptical questions from school board members.

And later in the marathon 4½ meeting, the U46 Charter School Evaluation Committee recommended the school board deny the proposal from Virtual Learning Solutions.

Meantime, similar public hearings took place Monday in other area school districts the charter school would serve.

“We are trying to make sure we are not against the flow of this. We know it’s upon us that these charter schools are going to be coming before us, so I appreciate the forethought,” said board member Maria Bidelman.

“This is not anything we are just saying, ‘No, we are a public school.’ We are looking at these things. We’re looking carefully at them.”

Cost discussion

The charter school would offer Web-based lessons to students in kindergarten to grade 12 from as many as 18 area school districts, starting this fall.

Students would log in daily, using curriculum from K12, under supervision by a parent or a co-op of parents or another family member or nanny, Hargens said. They’d video-conference with teachers and other students, maybe daily, maybe monthly, depending on the student, she said.

That would cost districts about $8,000 per student, according to the proposal, although board members seemed dissatisfied with how Virtual Learning Solutions came up with that number.

“This is just a proposal,” Hargens said. “We’re not sure how many students will enroll. We’re not sure what the negotiated rate would be.”

At K12 schools in Michigan, she said, the teacher-to-student ratio is about 60 to 1, depending on the types of classes taught. And students typically stay in K12 programs for one to three years, rather than progressing through all grade levels online, she said.

If those students aren’t doing well in the virtual program, the school will conference with parents to discuss whether it’s a good fit for their child, she said, but, “In the end, it’s the parents’ choice where and how they educate their student.”

Choices praised

During public comments, three area residents expressed support for giving parents choices. That’s not only good for students who attend the charter schools, but also for the students who stay behind in other district schools, according to Lennie Jarratt of For Our Children’s Future.

“Students that want to learn, that need an alternative — I encourage you give them an option and give them a chance to learn,” Jarratt said.

Twice as many, including teachers and representatives of the League of Women Voters and Geneva-based Northern Illinois Jobs with Justice, expressed concerns with the online charter school proposal. Elgin Teachers Association President Kathy Castle also expressed her opposition on behalf of the teachers union.

And the district’s Charter School Evaluation Committee said IVCS@FRV does not meet the statutory definition of a charter school — “specifically the provision stating that charter schools must be non-home-based,” according to its report.

The application also does not include a minimum or maximum number of students the school would serve, specifics how the school would serve at-risk students, or how it will assure students meet the state-required five hours of instruction each day, the report said. And the committee pointed to an investigation by the Florida Department of Education into K12 and emails claiming teachers at K12’s Tennessee Virtual Academy were asked to delete some failing grades.

“The issues that have been raised in other states have been dismissed. How do I address that? I actually believe K12 is a great option,” Jackson said.

“It doesn’t concern me.”

Board member Amy Kerber responded, “It concerns us.”

Next up, the U46 board is to vote on the charter school proposal at its meeting at 7 p.m. Monday, April 8, in the board room at the U46 Educational Services Center, 355 E. Chicago St., Elgin.

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