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Info on online charter school detailed : News : Oswego Ledger-Sentinel : Hometown Newspaper for Oswego and Montgomery, Illinois
Info on online charter school detailed
For-profit firm seeking board approval to serve school district

by Lyle R. Rolfe


Oswego School District Board members received information this past week on a proposal by a private, for-profit firm seeking to create an online charter school that would serve students from the district and 17 other area school districts.

Superintendent Dr. Matthew Wendt told board members a firm known as Virtual Learning Solutions (VLS), with headquarters in St. Charles, has filed an application with the state to have a charter school for Oswego and the following districts: Yorkville, East and West Aurora, Plainfield, Indian Prairie, Kaneland, Geneva, Naperville, Batavia, Burlington, Carpentersville, DeKalb, Elgin, St. Charles, Sycamore, Valley View and Wheaton.

The firm plans to have the school in operation for the 2013-14 school year, according to Wendt.

The school would be known as the Illinois Virtual Academy at Fox River Valley.

If the board votes to participate, the district would become a partner with any other school district that would join.

Wendt said he was contacted about the proposed school several months ago, but his first meeting with officials was last week when he met with Sharnell Jackson of VLS and one other representative of the firm.

Maureen Lemon, an attorney for the Oswego School District, said the school will be a virtual school and students would take all classes online from their homes. Any student enrolled in the charter school would break all ties with their original school district, she said.

Unlike home school students, charter school students would not be allowed to participate in sports or any other activities at their original home school.

The per student tax money going to their home school district as well as any other tax funds paid to that school district would follow the student to the charter school, Wendt said.

This also would include any matching funds paid by the district for that student, he noted.

Lemon said the amount requested from the district by VLS is $8,000 for each student who would transfer to the charter school, but noted that this amount is negotiable. The district presently spends $6,800 per student.

Wendt said VLS officials told him they would expect one-quarter to one-half of one percent of the district's more than 17,000 students to enroll the first year with a maximum of one percent, which is the average nationwide.

Using these enrollment figures, Wendt said at one-quarter percent it could cost the district $250,000 to $260,000 annually and using one-half percent it could cost the district $800,000 per year.

Lemon said the charter school would receive the money from the district on a quarterly basis, so if any students would return to the district, the funds would return at the start of the next quarter.

Wendt said all 18 school districts must hold public hearings on the charter school proposal. The public will be allowed to ask questions of VLS officials who will be attending each hearing. Dates set for the hearings range from March 11 through March 19.

The hearing in the Oswego School District will be held at 7 p.m. next Tuesday, March 19, in the second floor meeting room at Oswego East High School at 1525 Harvey Road, Oswego.

Lemon said the school board members must vote to either sign a contract to join VLS or deny their request to do so. A third alternative is for the board not to vote and allow the State Charter School Commission to decide whether the district should become a partner.

The proposal will be on the district's agenda for the regular board meeting scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday, April 8.

She said board members will be allowed to meet in closed session before voting, to discuss the proposal because it involves signing a contract.

But the board must return to open session to vote and they must file a written report with the state and VLS on why they voted the way they did. They must also give their reasons to the public at the board meeting, she said.

If they vote to not join, VLS officials have the right to appeal the decision to the State Charter School Commission, which can override the board's vote.

Lemon said VLS will have one facility from which to operate the on-line school to serve students in all 18 districts. She said VLS is considering renting space in Lisle for its corporate offices for school officials.

According to a letter sent to Wendt by Jackson, the academy will be an online charter school, using technology to connect students, parents and teachers throughout the Fox Valley Region. Jackson said this would be an unique program that will offer an alternative learning model for students.

Jackson's memo to Wendt said the academy would equip every student with the academic and non-academic foundations needed for any post secondary opportunity they wish to pursue.

According to the VLS proposal there are about 250,000 K-12 students in the 18 districts. They hope to have an enrollment of 500 students the first year and see this increase to 2,000 by the fifth year.

VLS also will be under the umbrella of K12 Inc., a company that offers online learning, serving more than 100,000 students in all 50 states, Wendt said.

Concerns aired

Last week's board meeting was attended by about 20 people, but only one person, Roger Sanders, spoke. He is a member of the district's Citizens Advisory Committee for Teaching and Learning and retired administrator with the district.

Sanders noted that a 2009 study by Stanford University examined 2,403 charter schools, which represents 70 percent of all charter students in the country. He said they found that 37 percent had learning gains significantly below those of local public schools, 46 percent had gains no different and only 17 percent had growth significantly better.

"I personally have serious concerns regarding the establishment of a virtual charter school that on the surface seems to more resemble a corporate structure and that distances itself from local control and the local dollars that will support it.

"There is no free lunch and we all know that it will be local school district dollars that will be diverted from our existing schools to support a school governed by those outside the community," Sanders said.

Wendt said the estimated 250 pages of information given to all board members by VLS is now on the district's website for public review. (The website can be found at

Lemon said Illinois law allows 120 charter schools in the state, 72 of which are in Chicago. She said the only virtual or on-line school so far in Illinois is in Chicago.

In response to a board member's question, Lemon said the teachers are not required to be in a union and they are not required to be certified such as those now working in the district. She noted that charter schools are not required to follow many of the mandates set for teachers by state and federal laws.

Lemon added that the state is considering requiring charter school teachers to be certified.

"But they certainly do not have the highly qualified requirements that all of your teachers have," she said.

Wendt noted the district is working to increase the number of on-line courses available to its students. A committee of high school teachers and administrators is preparing a report it will present to the Citizen's Advisory Committee for Teaching and Learning at its May meeting.

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