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Plan for online charter school criticized : News : Oswego Ledger-Sentinel : Hometown Newspaper for Oswego and Montgomery, Illinois
Plan for online charter school criticized
Proposal called 'Wall Street money grab' at Geneva forum

by Kathy Farren


A state representative from Tennessee and a lobbyist from the Illinois Federation of Teachers spoke out Sunday against a company that would be hired to run a proposed virtual, online charter school in 18 area school districts, including Yorkville.

They made their comments at a forum organized by Northern Illinois Jobs for Justice, and its co-chair John Laesch, a former Democratic Congressional candidate in the 14th District.

The forum, held at the First Congregational Church of Geneva, drew about 65 people including school board members from some of the districts included in the virtual charter school proposal, as well as teachers and retired teachers, and a student in the Chicago Virtual Academy, another charter school run by K12 Inc.

Virtual Learning Solutions, based in St. Charles, has submitted the proposal to operate Illinois Virtual Charter School @ Fox River Valley (IVCS@FRV), a school providing online and offline learning for children in kindergarten through high school.

Sharnell Jackson, the president of the Virtual Learning Solutions board of directors, said they expect to have 650 to 1,300 students enrolled for the 2013-14 school year. She explained that the 18 districts included in the proposal have a total enrollment of 259,000 students, enough students to draw from to make the charter school viable.

The districts included are Yorkville, Oswego, Elgin, Indian Prairie, Plainfield, East Aurora, West Aurora, Valley View, Geneva, DeKalb, Kaneland, Sycamore, Central (Burling-ton), St. Charles, Wheaton, Naperville, Batavia, and Carpentersville.

Public hearings are scheduled in all of the districts and within 30 days of the hearings, the districts have the option of approving the charter, denying the charter (which Virtual Learning Solutions could appeal to the Illinois State Charter School Commission), or the districts can "yield to the Illinois State Charter Commission in light of the complexities of joint administration."

'Money grab'

Laesch said he saw the proposal as an "attack on our community" and described K12 Inc.'s role in it as a "wall Street money grab." He said the firm, which is listed on the New York Stock Exchange, operated using public funds paid to the charter schools it runs and spends much of that money on advertising and lobbying.

He cited a National Education Policy Center report that says students in K12 run schools score lower in math and language arts than other students.

Tennessee Rep. Gloria Johnson, who said she is a teacher, said K12 has been in operation in her state for about a year. Last year, their students were in the bottom 11 percent on state tests, results she said were similar in other states.

Johnson said she was called by a man whose wife teaches in a charter school run by K12. He sent her copies of e-mails directing the teacher to delete any failing grades from September and October of the school year. If students scored better in November, the e-mails said to use the higher grades and not average them. One e-mail also said that, if too many students fail an assignment, teachers should not count it.

When legislation was proposed to limit the size of the virtual charter school, a teacher for K12 told Johnson she loved it. Johnson said she contacted that teacher to see if she could observe how she worked with her students, but she was told a supervisor would have to approve that first, and the visit hasn't happened.

Johnson questioned how the virtual, online education worked after seeing a K12 teacher in a coffee shop waiting for students to pick up tests to take at home. She maintained that, when charters have been pulled from some schools for poor performance, the schools' names were changed, but the same people were running them.

"Tennessee is spending millions on schools that are not working," Johnson said.

She added that more than half of the students come to K12 virtual schools from private schools or home schooling. Some who come from public schools have had behavior problems, she said.

At a public school, "if you're truant, we'll come look for you. That's not gonna happen with K12," she said, adding that if students "disappear" K12 still gets their funding.

Sharon Teefey, legislative director for the Illinois Federation of Teachers, said once a charter school is authorized, it's very difficult to close it. She said charters like this are "one more financial drain on schools, it's not fair to the kids who are still there."

She and Laesch said they believed a bill would soon be introduced to the Illinois General Assembly calling for a three year moratorium on virtual charters to allow time to study the proposals.

A Plainfield teacher asked how students go to school online. Johnson said that students log on and for some there's visual communication, using a program like Skype. "The people I've talked to say there's e-mails, log ons, and they expect a lot from parents. There is correspondence with teachers throughout the day," Johnson replied.

A high school student at the Chicago Virtual Charter School, also a K12 school, said students do have interaction with each other every week for a few hours. They use Class Connect several times for about an hour at a time and also do video chatting. She said she was thriving at the school. Her mother stood up and invited Johnson to their home to view how the school works.

Johnson said there are students who are disciplined and do well, "But I think the scores are low because many don't."

Online learning

A woman who said she taught science and math said schools have spent years using national standards.

"Virtual learning would be good for augmenting work and for some students. But, boy oh boy, I can't see teaching physics that way," she said.

A Batavia teacher likened the proposal to "paying mommy to home school," and added "That doesn't fulfill the kind of lesson plans I'm required to prepare."

Mark Bradford, a member of the West Aurora Board of Education, said his district has been working to incorporate online learning into the curriculum there. He asked if K12 curriculum can be used sometimes as a resource, "What's the purpose of the charter school? Our question is, what need are you meeting that we aren't already doing?"

A teacher in Naperville School District 203 said his district was using technology in every classroom, integrating it into the curriculum. "But there's also an adult in charge to see it fits in correctly."

A school board member from Wheaton questioned how it teaches students to get along with other kids.

K12 response

About an hour and a half into the meeting, Randall Greenway, vice president of school development for K12, stood and identified himself as the person who wrote the application on behalf of the board of the virtual charter school. As soon as he stated who he was, several people in the crowd called out "What's your salary?" He mentioned what he was paid as a teacher and school administrator before joining K12, but not his current salary.

He maintained that K12 "doesn't' run these schools, the board does." He also said that all tests are done in a "proctored," or supervised, setting.

"I've been with this company for 10 years. My children have been through the program. It's been wonderful for them," Greenway said.

Laesch responded, "You've benefited financially from our tax dollars."

After the meeting, Greenway said he felt the test scores in Tennessee were unfairly blasted.

"You have a thousand students enrolled in a statewide program and what happens is- we took one test after the kids had been in the program for six months. So if we have a ninth grader who doesn't score proficient on the state exam, but they've been in traditional school for eight years and our program for six months, and the kids score below basic on the exam, whose fault is that? Where the child has been previously? Or the six months we've had him? We know that these kids did bad; that was our baseline data. We had those kids for six months and, yes, those scores were bad," he said.

Greenway went on to say that K12 tests children "on the front end and we assess them on the back end and we see how much learning took place during that year. What we see is that, across the board, that Tennessee school outperformed the national norm group by a significant amount."

Lisa Welz also contributed to this story.

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