Some online schools a waste of money?

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Updated: 11/09/2012 9:13 am Published: 11/08/2012 10:05 pm

Two teenage girls, Taylor and Chelsea, both decided to try going to school online. But they tell two very different stories about their virtual experience.

Taylor transferred from a private school and Chelsea from a public school.

Taylor is one of 240 students who learns online through Tulsa Public Schools' own program, Tulsa Learning Academy, while Chelsea signed up online with another program, Oklahoma Virtual High School through a charter school called Epic One-on-One.

More than 3,700 hundred other students across the state are enrolled in schools like it.

Taylor says teachers are watching her all the time while she's online.

And she's required to be online, and working, 25 hours a week. Whenever she gets stuck, she can go to the district's physical classroom set up inside Promenade Mall and teachers can work with her face to face.

But Chelsea only had access to teachers by instant message, email or phone. And she says when she tried to get help at Oklahoma Virtual High School, she couldn't.

"They didn't keep track of anything. They didn't call me back to help me. They didn't really do anything," Chelsea said.

She'd go weeks without logging on or doing any work, and she claims no one noticed until the end of the semester.

"They never called til the very end and said do you need help," Chelsea said.

This year, the State Department of Education is doling out about $3,000 for each student in Oklahoma. It's the same amount for a traditional student and a virtual student.

"I don't think they should hand them $3,000 dollars for each student when they're not doing anything," Chelsea said.

When Chelsea first enrolled, she got a welcome kit in the mail. Inside was a letter, a voucher for a t-shirt, a water bottle, and a mouse pad. That was it.

"Three thousand dollars is a lot of money for a water bottle and a mouse pad," Chelsea said.

Chelsea said her experience was virtually a waste of time. She finished the year without any credit.

"That kinda makes me mad that they get money because I didn't get anything," she said.

Chelsea ended up getting her GED.

While Taylor's flying through her courses and on track to graduate early.

Teacher Dennis McDonald works with online students face to face. Tulsa Public School students can come here to the Tulsa Learning Academy and get help whenever they need it.

But he questions other online schools - the ones that use for-profit providers to run them.

"To make a profit, a good profit, on a group of kids and not helping them, i have a problem with that," McDonald said.

Here's how these schools work:

Chelsea's online program is called Oklahoma Virtual High School, but for the program to get funding from the state, Chelsea has to be enrolled in one of four specific districts or charter schools. Chelsea chose Epic One-on-One Charter School. But it's actually Advanced Academics that's running the online curriculum. It's a for-profit company.

Your tax dollars go from the State Department of Education to the districts and charter schools. And the schools pay the for-profit companies. The state department of education calls them vendors.

Some school district superintendents like Tulsa's Keith Ballard are against using public dollars to pay for-profit online providers.

"I think private vendor companies who are providing education service ought not to get rich off the taxpayer money, and I think there's a lot of money changing hands," Dr. Ballard said.

Some online providers even spend money recruiting students with TV commercials.

"I would think that would send a red flag to the public," Dr. Ballard said. " They're making enough money to have huge, glitzy advertising campaign."

We asked Oklahoma State Superintendent of Schools Janet Barresi what she thinks.

"Some people take issue with the idea of using public tax dollars to pay for-profit companies to run schools," said FOX23's Janna Clark in an interview with Barresi.

"First of all, they're not running the school. They're under contract with an existing school district in order to run that," Barresi said.

But if you look at Chelsea's paperwork, all her email correspondence, even her admission letter didn't come from her charter school. It came from the vendor - Advanced Academics.

The vendor provides the online curriculum. It hires the teachers, and it pays for the commercials.

"So, it's okay with you that these vendors are making money? And is it okay with you they're making enough money to advertise?" Janna asked.

"I think it's important to have a conversation and look at balance sheets," Barresi said.

What about accountability? Barresi says virtual schools have to meet the same standards as any school.

So we checked. And Epic One-on-One Charter School is getting a "D."

When FOX23 asked the State Department of Education how much money these vendors are receiving, the state couldn't provide the information because it doesn't track it.

So FOX23 called Epic One-on-One Charter School to find out what the school pays its vendor - Advanced Academics.

The school's founder says the school pays Advanced Academics $3,000 per student. With 300 students in the program, it's getting $900,000 just through Epic Charter School.

According to Advanced Academics, it contracts with three other districts in Oklahoma and with schools in 20 different states. But the company would not tell us how many students it serves.

Epic Charter School's founder also told us the school offers another option. Students can enroll directly with Epic's One-one-One online school - with its own teachers stationed throughout the state who can visit students' homes. And Epic doesn't make any money.

So is there any point to paying for-profit vendors to run online schools when there are other options?

"Is there a necessity for these vendors?" Janna asked Baressi.

"No, I mean, we can do one of two things. We can make our own meal, or we can go to a restaurant. We have a choice," Barresi said.

"I think that's wrong. I think we ought not to profit off the education of children," Dr. Ballard said.

Some students told FOX23 they're happy with their online education. But online educators say even the best programs are not for everyone. Students have be self-motivated, and in some cases it requires more work than traditional school.

Educators say parents and students need to do your homework and make sure you understand how the program works before you enroll.

There is a bill the governor signed in June. It will a create a Virtual Charter School Board to oversee virtual education. 

FOX23 spoke to the author of the bill, Senator Gary Stanislawski. He says the school board will create policies and set standards for virtual schools and will release a report next October. The report will include how students are performing, enrollment numbers, drop-out rates and evaluate the cost.

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The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of KOKI FOX23 - Tulsa

user9 - 11/14/2012 7:56 PM
0 Votes
For an article about education, there sure are a lot of typos here. Please spend more time editing your work. Also, a lot of the facts here don't sound correct. I think that I will be getting my information elsewhere from now on. It sounds like fear-mongering and catering to a local program in my opinion (Hmmm... A Tulsa station discussing how "great" a Tulsa program is, while giving a negative review to its rival, which just happens to be a provider in a different city). Yeah, it sounds like someone got paid for this one.

OKVHS - 11/13/2012 12:50 PM
0 Votes
Advanced Academics partners with schools and districts throughout Oklahoma to offer Oklahoma Virtual High School (OKVHS). While online learning is not for everyone, statewide online programs like OKVHS give students access to advanced placement and electives courses not available through many Oklahoma public school districts. In addition, full-time online programs enable students who are at high risk of dropping out – including students who have been bullied, students with health problems or who need to work for financial reasons, and those that simply learn better outside the traditional classroom environment – to stay in school, receive their high school diploma, go on to college and become productive, fulfilled members of society. OKVHS students have immediate access to experienced, certified teachers who are available via phone, instant message and chat 24 hours a day during the school week. Statewide online educational programs are subject to the same accountability and attendance standards created and enforced by the state Board of Education for traditional public schools. Like all other public school students in Oklahoma, OKVHS students take part in annual state testing. OKVHS partner schools or districts enroll the students, confer credits, and oversee the progress and academic success of their students.

OKCAmom - 11/9/2012 6:07 PM
0 Votes
My daughter is in her second year as a student at Oklahoma Connections Academy. We needed to find an alternative method of education to accommodate her type-1 diabetes, because the traditional method of schooling was not working for her. She has absolutely thrived in a virtual setting. She knows her teachers and they know her far better than in a traditional setting. She was sent a box of brand-new textbooks before school began, had the opportunity to meet her teachers before school began, and has regular contact with them. She is supervised daily by her parent/learning coach. I also have regular contact with her teachers and work with them as a part of the team. She has placement testing at the beginning and the end of the school year to see her progress. The school requires mandatory participation in State testing as well. She works a minimum of 30 hours per week, on a flexible schedule that meets her needs. In traditional school, she spent time in the nurse's office taking care of herself and missed out on educational opportunities. That doesn't happen any more. She is a straight A student who loves and appreciates the opportunity virutal education has given her. I don't see this as a waste of money. She is working with a wonderful staff of teachers and a phenomenal principal who put the students' needs first. Isn't it the students and their benefit that we are supposed to be focusing on here? Perhaps, Janna, you should talk to some of our success stories and then tell the WHOLE TRUTH about virtual education!

Lauren - 11/9/2012 3:41 PM
1 Vote
Here in Oklahoma we have a choice. We can choose one of the "brick and mortar" public schools, an online public school, homeschooling, private school etc. Its a choice that I'm very thankful to have. Like any decision that we as parents make for our children, one has to do their own research to see which type of school is best for their child. Parents have to take the responsibility to find the best school, then partner with the teachers to help the child reach their full potential. That is true for Whatever type of education you want. I have no problem in saying that online education is not for everyone. Its a Lot of hard work! My two boys are in their third year with Oklahoma Virtual Charter Academy. It took us a while to find a routine that works for us but I have seen great academic progress and am very pleased. If it wasn't for this choice, my eldest son would have been passed on from grade to grade-drowning in an old fashioned format of school that did Not work for him at all. Now he is learning and thriving and has his confidence back. It is very disheartening to read a story that seems so one sided. The money that is being spent is coming BACK into this state in the form of school books, work books, art and science supplies, maps, etc PLUS it pays for the teachers that live in this state! While not all online schools may work like this one--thats why doing research is so important!-its a valid public school choice. Its funny how people can get so irate over an online "for profit" school and yet will just put up with a neighborhood brick and mortar that is rated a D or --in the case of Tulsa county--could very well be an F! Everyone's main concern should be what is best for the children. Public online schools work for some and public brick and mortar works for others. Its a choice that we should be celebrating Not tearing down.

Bookboy23 - 11/9/2012 11:31 AM
0 Votes
Re: the diversion of our public education tax dollars to private, out-of-state online providers . . .What accountability is there on these out-of-state providers? That's a question for Janet Barresi. Especially when Oklahoma is #3 in the country as far as the biggest drop in education funding in the last three years. Do we really need to send these $$ out of state? Great story, FOX!

Steve - 11/9/2012 9:10 AM
0 Votes
It sounds as though Chelsea believes that her success in school is dependent on the efforts of other people rather than her own efforts. Online education is not for everyone. It is not for the student who lacks motivation. It is for the student who, for various reasons, has not had success or cannot attend an 8:00 to 4:00 school. It is also for students who get to their Senior year needing 9 credits to graduate and can only get 7 at their local school. All that being said, an online course can be more difficult than a course in a "brick and mortar" school. If your student's Algebra I teacher is supposed to cover 10 chapters in Algebra I, but only can finish 9 chapters by the end of the year, they still say that the students have earned a credit in Algebra I. Online courses do not have this flexibility. The student must finish the entire course or take zeros in the unfinished work. When your student enrolls at Edison or any other high school and is assigned to a particular English I teacher, you have no idea about the quality of education that your student is receiving. All most parents care about is whether or not their student is receiving a passing grade, at least until they take the ACT and get a score of 12, or can't pass freshman courses at the local university, so the enroll at the local community college, and still can't pass freshman courses. Online education is constantly growing and improving. At Advanced Academics, they make sure that their courses meet or exceed all of the state and national standards, standards which are constantly changing and requiring courses to become more and more challenging. We would like to think that the courses at our local school are doing this, but frequently you get the teacher who has been teaching Oklahoma History for 30 years and is going to continue teaching the same way he/she always has. In the end, its obviously a choice that parents and students are going to have to make together.

Mayor Maynot - 11/9/2012 3:31 AM
0 Votes
Momo3 your story sounds great (almost like an ad). Truth is @ virtual or brick and mortar schools; you only get out of it what you put into it. If the student is not able to teach the idea to themselves then they won't ever learn it. Another important factor is perception. If you can't get their interest then they will never get it. Correspondence courses are not much different from virtual schools. Practical application is 9/10ths. If they can't see how they can use that information then what's the use. TPS is using a virtual application in experimental classes THIS YEAR so it looks like something that you're going to start getting accustomed with in the near future (maybe next year there are still a bunch of teachers out there trying to pay off student loans). Of course they could probably make better money working as a waitress in an all-night diner but that's not the way they planned it. I've rambled on way too long

Parent of 3 - 11/8/2012 11:04 PM
0 Votes
My children attend a virtual school: Oklahoma Connections Academy. My children have never gotten a better education. The school meets the needs of all three of my children, and we never have to wait more than a few moments to get help from a teacher. We have special education supports as well as regular education. All three of my children are getting an education that is directed towards them. The program allows them more creativity than a traditional classroom. My children have access to electives and clubs that aren't available in the local schools. And most importantly, the teachers and staff care about my children, and my family. OK Connections Academy requires us to take attendance daily. If students get too far behind on lessons, the school will make contact with us and see if there is a way that we can work together to get the student not only caught up, but back on track for the remainder of the course. We talk to the teachers at least twice a week. Many times, it is more. Whether we are using the internal webmail system, live lessons, or phone calls, I have never felt lost, or like we couldn't get a hold of someone. I don't know what we would do if Oklahoma Connections Academy wasn't available to us. My children are succeeding at school while continuing to be challenged. They are happier, and so am I.
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