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Report dives into academic, enrollment struggles at North Carolina virtual charters

If you haven’t already, take the time to read WRAL’s deep-dive into North Carolina’s fledgling virtual charter schools, two programs run by for-profit companies that reported soaring withdrawal numbers and middling academic scores in their first years.

The report highlights parents’ surveys, examining at least some of the reasons that nearly 2,500 students pulled out of N.C. Connections Academy and N.C. Virtual Academy in their first two years of operations.

As Policy Watch has reported, the controversial programs have enjoyed the support of school choice backers and many Republican state lawmakers—as well as the majority of parents surveyed by the state—although virtual charters have had a bumpy ride in North Carolina and in other states as well.

Indeed, one Stanford University study found deleterious effects on student achievement in virtual charters nationwide, and North Carolina’s own programs have struggled to meet academic expectations, according to state reports.

From WRAL:

Since the schools launched two years ago, they have enjoyed strong support from families, often receiving high marks on parent satisfaction surveys. But they have also struggled with low performance grades and high withdrawal rates.

Their first year, the schools enrolled nearly 3,900 students combined. By the end of the year, more than 1,200 students – more than 30 percent – left to seek education elsewhere, prompting one State Board of Education member to warn, “We need to monitor this closely.” This past year, the schools enrolled more than 4,400 students and lost nearly 1,200, or about 27 percent.

Tracking how many students leave the schools has been a complex and controversial topic since lawmakers granted the schools four-year pilot programs beginning in 2015. Virtual charter school leaders say their withdrawal numbers appear inflated because of the unique students they serve, some of whom only enroll for a brief time. Last year, lawmakers decided to allow the schools to stop counting certain students who leave, including those who withdraw within 30 days. The change allowed the schools to report drastically lower withdrawal rates of 5 percent each.

While the schools’ overall enrollment and withdrawal numbers are publicly reported, not much is known about why students leave. In public meetings and interviews with WRAL News, leaders at both schools often rely on anecdotes to explain why students depart, typically sharing stories of children undergoing cancer treatments or other personal struggles who need to take online courses for a short time before returning to their previous schools.

But a detailed breakdown of specific reasons why students leave the online schools has never been reported – until now.

WRAL’s report goes on to offer a sample of parents’ specific reasons for leaving. Some moved. Others complained of the workload for parents and unresponsive teachers. Others simply wanted a different school experience.

From WRAL:

Among the parents’ responses were complaints about the online classes being too easy, too rigorous or not flexible enough. Some families said they had problems communicating with teachers and felt frustrated or confused by the online programs. The records WRAL News reviewed did not reveal parents’ or students’ names but did show which school and grade the students were enrolled in.

“There was not much support, the teachers did not seem very engaging. When my daughter emailed questions, she was not responded to,” the parent of a fifth-grader wrote. “She was basically not getting much of an education other than what she was teaching herself.”

“My daughter was frustrated by the teacher turnover, inconsistent grading procedures, and limited choice of courses offered,” the parent of a 10th-grader shared. “She did not feel like she could get helpful one on one assistance, especially in Math. We constantly asked for tutors, but were never given an option.”

Others left for reasons outside the schools’ control.

“We entered about a month after the opening and did our best to catch up … It proved to be overwhelming,” the parent of a seventh-grader wrote. “Overall, it was not the fault of this school. I was actually quite impressed with the curriculum and most of the teachers.”

“We moved,” another parent wrote.

Some parents said they struggled to serve as learning coaches for their children. Both virtual charter schools require an adult, typically a parent, to help monitor their children’s schoolwork and communicate with teachers.

“The school ended up being a lot more work for the coach than we expected. In my opinion the role of coach was really teacher,” the parent of a seventh-grader shared.

“Did not workout with me as a full-time worker. Did not have anyone to help me as a coach for my child. If could have found someone would have continued,” the parent of an eighth-grader wrote.

Some students craved more social interaction and wanted to be in a traditional school setting. The parents of two elementary school students said they noticed a change when their children were in the online school environment.

“We found that the lack of social interaction between other students had a negative impact on our children’s behavior at home. They began to exhibit symptoms of depression among other things,” the parents wrote. “We put them back in a traditional brick and mortar school and they had a complete turnaround in behavior and mood.”

Others needed more structure.

“Had problems with her attentiveness and sleeping late,” the parent of a kindergartner wrote. “She needed the structure of a planned schedule and someone who she could not push-over, like she did her mom.”

According to WRAL, virtual charter leaders complained that the state had not shared parents’ responses with them. They also pointed to apparent support from most parents and at least one national study that indicates virtual charter students may make up academic losses if they remain in the programs.

Both publicly-funded schools are now in their third year of operations.

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