The East Baton Rouge Parish school system is poised to launch a new online school that caters to both struggling and advanced students, hoping to grab a share of the burgeoning virtual education marketplace in the capital city.
The system will join dozens of other school districts in Louisiana that have launched their own schools to compete with for-profit, publicly funded online schools. It also will be a second go at online schooling for the state’s second largest school district.
The two biggest competitors, Louisiana Connections Academy and Louisiana Virtual Charter School, opened in 2011 and have grown quickly, currently educating more than 4,000 students statewide, more than 250 of them from Baton Rouge.
East Baton Rouge Parish Superintendent Warren Drake’s proposal, which the School Board will take up Thursday, has two parts:
A distance learning program, meaning students are taking classes at a district location and not home, which will enroll students who have dropped out or are on the verge of dropping out. It’s a variation on a program called “Moving Forward” that the school system launched a year ago but which failed to draw many students.
A virtual school catering to students not in the system who want a fast track to graduation, including home-schooled students. Like other such schools, EBR Virtual School would be open only to children who live in the school district and only to high school students. Unlike other district-run programs, it would be selective — only students who have a minimum 2.5 GPA and are at the national average or better on a still-to-be determined standardized test would be eligible to enroll.
Adonica Duggan, a spokeswoman for the school system, said requiring the 2.5 GPA is “to ensure the students who enroll are prepared for this type of learning environment.”
“This type of program requires students to be motivated, independent learners,” Duggan said. “In order to access the content provided through the online platform, students will need to be performing at a certain academic level.”
Both programs are set to launch this fall, preceded by a promotional campaign.
“We are absolutely marketing this,” Duggan said.
Online education in Louisiana runs the gamut. Many are what is known as “blended learning,” where online and face-to-face instruction are both used. These programs involve classes taken on computer at a neighborhood school or a special center with teachers close by.
Others offer little to no blending. They are full-day programs where students take all of their classes from home and interact with teachers only to take tests and receive tutoring.
How well these district-run programs compare to the online charter and private schools is an open question.
The Louisiana Department of Education amasses lots of data, requires audits and assigns letter grades to its four stand-alone online schools, three of which attract students statewide.
District-run online schools and programs, however, are harder to track. Their students are typically counted on the rolls of their neighborhood public schools and are indistinguishable from their peers. State officials say they have no idea how many of them there are, how many students they enroll, much less how their students are performing.
Nationwide, online learning has a mixed track record. Some studies, including an influential 2010 meta-analysis by the U.S. Department of Education, suggest they can be at least as good as the more traditional educational approach.
Online charter schools have not fared so well of late. They took a hit in the fall when a nationwide study found that two-thirds of online charter schools had weaker overall academic growth than similar brick-and-mortar schools. In math, for instance, 88 percent of online charters had weaker academic growth than brick-and-mortar schools.
Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Board Association, helped manage Lafayette Parish’s virtual school before taking his current job. He said human interaction is crucial.
“I think the districts that have seen more success have provided more support for the students,” Richard said. “It’s not just put you in front of the screen.”
In Central, as many as 30 students show up each weekday at its Virtual Opportunities School, which is located on Joor Road in the school district’s Central Office. A handful of students, though, work almost exclusively from home. Another 30-plus students, mostly struggling ninth-graders at Central High, are taking classes online at the 10200 E. Brookside Drive campus.
Each year, the school, now in its third year and goes from sixth to 12th grades, has grown.
“We have more and more parents contacting us about the virtual school,” Superintendent Michael Faulk said.
All of these students, whether they are at home, at school or on Joor Road, are technically Central Middle or Central High school students. That allows Central to receive state per-pupil funding for each one.
“That’s how we can pay for the online stuff,” Faulk said.
According to Central’s policy, in certain cases students in the virtual school can take part in extracurricular activities at Central High even if they take no classes there, though Faulk said that issue has not yet come up.
Unlike Central and other district-run schools, EBR Virtual School is being created as a stand-alone school, meaning it will receive an annual letter grade. No other district has taken this approach. The closest is Lafourche Parish, which approved an independent charter school in 2012 called Virtual Academy of Lafourche, which offers online education to almost 500 children from that south Louisiana parish.
In Ascension Parish, which has about 22,200-plus students, making it four times the size of Central, every student from kindergarten to 12th grade is eligible to attend its district digital academy, which is in its third year. APPLe, short for Ascension Parish Programs for Learning and e-instruction, is based in Darrow, which is on the east bank across from Donaldsonville. Like Central, APPLe students are registered at their neighborhood school.
About 100 to 150 students come to Darrow each day because they have been expelled and are trying to work their way back to their home school, mostly back to one of Ascension’s four high schools. There they participate in a blended learning program, but the blend has increasingly favored face-to-face as the program has developed.
“We have really found with our alternative students they need quite a bit of interventional help in the classroom with their teachers,” said Lynn Hathaway, APPLe’s principal.
The rest of the students at APPLe, about 100 students, participate in a voluntary acceleration program. It has a mix of kids, ranging from participating in-person to remote. The remote students are a mix of home-schooled kids and those with special issues, including some who have disabilities severe enough that they are homebound.
Hathaway said her staff regularly checks up on the students to make sure they are keeping up.
“If they are not making progress, we return them to their high school,” she said.
Ascension, Central and East Baton Rouge are not creating their own online courses. Instead, they have all contracted with Scottsdale, Arizona-based Edgenuity for online courses.
Livingston Parish has not followed the example of its neighbors and allowed students to take courses from home. Assistant Superintendent Joe Murphy said the school district offers access to some online courses at school, but it is focusing its spending on improving classroom technology to try to compete with its online competitors.
“While virtualization can provide valuable services, it cannot substitute for one-on-one instruction in the classroom,” Murphy said. “That is a personal opinion.”