Thousands of students in Washington state attend full-time online school. This fall, they'll have another option as a new virtual school, Pacific Northwest Connections Academy, opens.
The British educational company Pearson will operate the school, which will be hosted by South Kitsap School District. It will initially serve grades seven through 12, with a plan to expand into younger grades in subsequent years, and will be open to students from across the state.
“It used to be that students would go to the school that was in their neighborhood and now because there are so many options all over the state, we find that students are choosing other schools in other districts, or online schools, or home school or Running Start in local community colleges, and so it’s changed the way we approach our offerings,” said Tim Winter, superintendent of South Kitsap School District.
Online school has become a popular option as companies such as Pearson and K12 Inc. advertise on social and broadcast media to attract students. Some students who enroll in online school say they want to escape negative interactions with peers. Others cite the chance to set their own pace and hours of study.
But some large online schools in the state have significantly lower academic results than the state average. That includes another school operated by Pearson, called Washington Connections Academy, hosted by the tiny Mary M. Knight School District on the Olympic Peninsula.
The most recent data on the state report card shows that 26.2 percent of Washington Connections Academy students passed the statewide math assessment and 39.8 percent passed the English language arts assessment. Among students in all schools across the state, 49.4 percent met the standard on the math test and 59.4 percent passed the English language arts test.
In a statement, Pearson said its Connections Academy schools serve a much more mobile student population and, therefore, “looking at state test scores is an incomplete assessment of online school performance.” Students who frequently change schools tend to suffer academic setbacks as a result.
Winter said his district will strive to ensure the new school provides a high-quality education. He said adding a full-time online school will help address some declining enrollment at the high school level in the South Kitsap School District.
“We want to serve our community and this is a way we can do that while maintaining our students in our district,” he said.
But there’s also a financial incentive for districts to open online schools that serve students from across the state. Districts that host online schools keep a share of the per-student allocation from the state. In addition, an online school boosts a district’s enrollment, leading to an increase in the amount of local effort assistance that property-poor school districts receive from the state to compensate for their limited ability to raise money through local levies.
Matt Mallery, who is new to the superintendent job in the Mary M. Knight district, said he only found out about two weeks ago that another Connections Academy is opening this fall.
“We were a little surprised at that but we understand that they’re looking to expand,” Mallery said. He said his district will be having discussions with Pearson to better understand their “long-term model.”
The Mary M. Knight district only had 156 students in its brick-and-mortar schools in the most recent school year. Washington Connections Academy, which served K-11 this past school year and will add 12th grade this fall, had an average enrollment of about 1,500.
Pearson, which is a for-profit, publicly traded company, said it considers public interest when deciding whether to partner with a district to open a second Connections Academy in a state; it says it has received 9,400 requests in Washington so far in 2019. The company said it also sees an advantage to opening a second school in case a district imposes a limit on enrollment or decides to stop offering an online school.
In its 2018 annual report, Pearson described virtual schools as a "growth market." Its Connections Academy schools served 73,000 full-time-equivalent students in 28 states.