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D-427, D-428 officials scrutinize online charter school proposal

Published: Wednesday, March 20, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

DeKalb and Sycamore school district officials questioned representatives of the Illinois Virtual Academy at Fox River Valley, an online charter school that is looking to enroll students by fall, at separate public hearings Tuesday. 

School officials asked about the cost of the program, the responsibilities of the student’s “learning coach” and its relationship with K12 Inc., the for-profit company that Virtual Learning Solutions will partner with for the academy.

For DeKalb board member Tracy Williams, the estimated cost of the program at $8,000 a student and the issue of “cherry-picked” testing results caught his attention.

“If you were doing that across the board, I am not sure why we’re here,” Williams said, referring to the test results that were presented to the board. “Everything we worked toward and worked for has been solved.”

Officials from Virtual Learning Solutions and K12 are petitioning 18 school districts to create the first multidistrict online charter school in the state. School boards have to approve or deny the charter within 30 days of their particular public hearing. Officials from Virtual Learning Solutions were at DeKalb’s hearing, but not Sycamore’s.

The Sycamore school board is expected to vote on the issue at its April 9 meeting. DeKalb officials are expected to vote on the issue at their April 16 meeting. In order for the charter school to be established, each of the boards must vote yes. 

One of the biggest concerns of Luke Glowiak, the Sycamore district’s assistant superintendent, was that virtual school code requires the school to track enrollment and attendance and report it to the district on a monthly basis. But he said he didn’t see in the proposal how that would be carried out.

Zach Wasilew, vice president of business development at K12, said the organization tailors data to each district, for which his organization hoped the district would come up with policies and procedures.

“If I’m hearing you correctly, you haven’t put that piece in place yet even though that piece is an important component to Illinois state district funding?” Glowiak said.

Wasilew said that was correct.

School districts would lose between 75 to 125 percent of their funding per student, depending on how many enrolled with the charter school and negotiations with the districts went. This cost was pegged at about $8,000 a student. 

“I’m sensing there’s a significant margin built in here,” Williams said. “And I don’t see how we come out ahead here.”

Stephanie Hargens, a deputy regional vice president at K12, compared the online classroom experience to a webinar at the DeKalb public hearing, but she said there are a lot of misconceptions about online charter schools.

“The misconception is that students are face to face with a computer all day, and that is not the case,” Hargens said. 

Every student would have a learning coach – a parent or other guardian who would keep track of a student’s attendance and progress in the charter school. These people would spend a number of hours a day checking on their student’s progress.  

Hargens said these parents or guardians would be trained if they wanted to be. Williams used this as a point of criticism, saying that it puts undue amount of pressure on the parent. 

“You’ve asked parents to educate their children and you’ve given them a tool with which to do that,” Williams said. He added that these parents are not compensated.

Officials from Virtual Learning Solutions and K12 showed parents and school officials how the program would work. All of the teachers would be credentialed and live in the state. She also outlined expectations for both teachers and students. She said students would spend at least six hours a day on coursework, depending on their grade level.

“We expect to see growth in our students,” Hargens said, outlining the different ways they are tested. 

Officials at both school districts raised concern about the relationship between K12 and Virtual Learning Solutions. DeKalb board member Michael Lord said he finds it hard to make a decision about this when negotiations between K12 and Virtual Learning Solutions have not been finalized. 

Officials from Virtual Learning Solutions and K12 took notes at both hearings, stating that they will try to address the questions school officials and residents had about the program.

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