How students at online schools in Washington disappear from district graduation rates
This story is the second in our series, “Who’s Counted: Taking a Closer Look at School District Graduation Rates.” The first part of the series examined how dropout re-engagement programs are excluded from district graduation rates.
Jinxx Jones was overwhelmed during her first year at Lakes High School in Lakewood. Transitioning from middle school to an environment of about 1,400 students was jarring.
“There were just so many people and I felt really lost,” she said. “I just couldn’t get my bearings in that kind of population.”
Jones failed some of her classes and said interactions with her peers “weren’t very positive,” so she went looking for an alternative.
She found Insight School of Washington, an online school operated by the publicly traded company, K12 Inc. The school, hosted through a contract with the Quillayute Valley School District on the Olympic Peninsula, is funded by state tax dollars.
Going to school online sounded like a good solution, Jones said.
“I was perfectly fine with just staying home,” she said. “And I also liked that I had more control with picking courses. They had bigger variety.”
She enrolled in 2012. To do that, she and her parents submitted paperwork for her to transfer to the Quillayute Valley School District, even though she was living more than 150 miles away. Insight School, which has an enrollment of roughly 2,000, draws students from across the state, with large numbers enrolling from the Puget Sound region.
Jones started out strong. She said she still has her honor roll certificate from her first classes at Insight School. But after that, she lost momentum. It was hard to stay motivated and being alone at home wasn’t that great after a while.
“I was dealing with being a teenager and you’re going through puberty and all sorts of mental stuff starts setting in,” Jones said. “I had escaped the drama of high school, but I had also kind of secluded myself, too.”
She said she only earned about three credits before dropping out in 2014. Jones is one of many students who have dropped out of Insight School since it opened in 2006. The school had a graduation rate last year of 32 percent and a dropout rate of 45 percent.
And while Jones later made her way to a community college, it's very hard to track what happens to most students who drop out of online schools.
Cecily Kiester is head of Insight School. Like the school’s 100 or so teachers, she’s an employee of Virginia-based K12 Inc., a for-profit company whose chief executive, Nathaniel Davis, earned more than $6 million last year in salary and stock. The bulk of the company’s business stems from running publicly funded online schools across the country.
Kiester said a major reason for the school’s low graduation rate is that many students have already fallen behind at their prior schools when they enroll. Last year, 64 percent of students were credit deficient when they enrolled in Insight School.
“Which begs the question — what happened in your home district? Do they know you’re here? And we’re happy to have you because we want you to graduate, but we have a lot of work to do — a lot of backtracking and credit recovery work,” Kiester said.
But because of a quirk in state policy, Insight School's low graduation rate doesn't show up in Quillayute Valley's district-wide graduation rate. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction leaves some groups of students out when calculating district-level graduation rates, such as students who attend dropout re-engagement programs and vocational/technical skills centers.
In this case, the students excluded are those who attend alternative schools — including online schools — that enroll a majority of students from outside the district. OSPI does include all students when it calculates the statewide graduation rate.
So, while Quillayute Valley's graduation rate last year was 75 percent, that only reflects the students who live in the Forks area. If all the Insight School students were included, the district's graduation rate would drop by about 40 percentage points.
KNKX Public Radio asked Quillayute Valley Superintendent Diana Reaume if she would find a 32 percent graduation rate at Forks High School concerning.
“Absolutely,” she said. “But it’s not the same program that our online program is.”
The difference, she said, is that Insight School is an alternative school that draws students who have fallen behind. Still, if students who live in Seattle enroll in Insight School, they don’t show up in either Seattle Public Schools’ graduation rate or Quillayute Valley’s, rendering them invisible. Reaume stressed it depends on where you look at the data.
“Their data is there. It’s front and center if you want to pull up their school,” Reaume said. “And we’re very aware of it. If we weren’t aware of it and didn’t know what’s going on, I think that would be a greater concern.”
Insight School's graduation rate is available on the state superintendent's website. Insight School has qualified for comprehensive support from OSPI under the state’s new accountability system because of its low graduation rate.
Reaume said Quillayute Valley offers online school to provide options to students who need flexibility.
But there's a financial boost to the school district. For the first 1,700 students enrolled at Insight School, the district keeps 6 percent of the state’s per-pupil amount for students in alternative learning experience programs, which this year totals $8,135. For additional students above that number, the district keeps 3 percent of that allocation. Reaume said those funds, which total about $900,000, are used to provide data entry and compliance services for the school. The amount of state funds paid to K12 Inc. for teachers and operations totals about $16 million this year.
Quillayute Valley School District also benefits from money the state gives to property-poor school districts that can't raise much through local levies. Those dollars, known as local effort assistance, are based on enrollment. Quillayute Valley enrolls about 1,000 students in its brick-and-mortar schools; hosting Insight School adds about 2,000 to enrollment. Reaume said getting extra money is not why the district has an online school.
“That wasn’t our intention when we built the program,” she said. “Our intention was to have another way of learning for students and that’s one of, I guess, the pluses of it. I don’t believe that was any part of why we would run a program like this.”
Still, the additional local effort assistance amounts to more than $2 million. Reaume said that money is used for students in the Forks brick-and-mortar schools. Other rural districts in Washington, including Omak, Toppenish and Mary M. Knight, operate online schools that draw students from across the state and get a similar boost in local effort assistance because the online schools add hundreds of students to their enrollments.
Reaume pointed out that her school district does not qualify for extra dollars the state directs to school districts that have higher housing costs, even though she said there’s a lack of affordable housing in Forks.
UNDER THE RADAR
These publicly funded online schools have flown under the radar in Washington. They sound similar to charter schools, but they pre-date charter schools and were authorized by the Legislature in 2005. And the fact that the largest online schools are operated by for-profit companies is not widely known.
But the idea of having struggling students turn to online school as a way to catch up raises concerns. Robert Balfanz directs the Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education.
“The real problem with virtual schools, especially for high-needs kids, is that the evidence is clear-cut, they need relationships as well as good instruction,” Balfanz said. “And virtual schools are about really the absence of relationships.”
Kiester said Insight School has what’s called a Family Academic Support Team, which aims to help get students back on track when they struggle. She acknowledged that online school works best for students who are self-motivated and may not be a good fit for everyone, but said the school can’t turn away students who want to enroll.
Sarah King-Scott of Shoreline is one of those self-motivated students who has done well in online school through Insight.
Her younger sister is enrolled at Washington Virtual Academies, another K12 Inc.-operated online school through the Omak School District.
“It has really worked for our family because we seek out knowledge and we’re looking for stuff anyway,” said their mother, Lyanne Scott. “The kids are online looking for things to do, fun things, why not learn online as well?”
King-Scott is 16 years old and biracial. She's attended other online schools in the past and tried going to her Shoreline high school in 2017, but transferred to Insight School partly because of negative interactions with peers.
“There’s no creepy boys my age, which is something I ran into at my month in the brick-and-mortar high school,” she said. “There’s no racism, which I ran into all of my brick-and-mortar education.”
So logging into classes taught by teachers elsewhere in the state and submitting homework online was appealing to King-Scott. She’s doing well, she says: she's on the honor roll and is vice president of her school’s National Honor Society.
But judging by Insight School’s graduation and dropout rates, her success is atypical.
Jones, the young woman from Lakewood, said that after she dropped out of Insight School in 2014, she fell too far behind to complete her high school diploma. So she earned a GED instead.
From there, she enrolled in a dropout re-engagement program called Fresh Start at Tacoma Community College and earned her associate degree. She now works for Fresh Start and hopes to enroll in a four-year bachelor’s program to pursue a career as a museum curator.
Jones said she realized what she needed academically was something she couldn’t find in either her regular high school or online.
“Really I just needed a mature social environment, and that was what I was looking for,” Jones said. “Finally, I gave myself an opportunity to come somewhere where I was just around people who had maturity.”
At Fresh Start, she said she sees a good number of students who, like her, abandoned online school.
“There’s a lot of freedom that comes with online school,” Jones said. “And maybe at certain ages, students don’t always understand what comes with that freedom.”