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Public online schools in Washington are seeing growth as parents look for a different option

In this file photo from April 2019, Sarah King-Scott demonstrated how she logs on to her Insight School of Washington account to attend online high school.
Parker Miles Blohm
In this file photo from April 2019, Sarah King-Scott demonstrated how she logs on to her Insight School of Washington account to attend online high school.

When her children’s school switched to distance learning in the spring, Dana Rosenberg found herself trying to sort through a pile of emails from teachers and keeping track of multiple website logins. And she was disappointed in how little live online instruction her kids received.

Now a new school year is set to begin and the Kent School District, where her kids have been enrolled, plans to begin with remote learning due to the pandemic. Rosenberg has chosen a different option for her son, who’s entering sixth grade.

She’s withdrawn him from the Kent district and enrolled him in the Omak school district, more than 200 miles away in the northeastern part of the state. But he’ll continue to learn from home because he’ll be enrolled in Washington Virtual Academies, a public online school hosted by the Omak district and operated by the for-profit company, K12 Inc.

“It’s organized and the materials are sent to you, so we don’t have to go searching through a bunch of emails to find that PDF that was sent,” Rosenberg said. “That was my biggest frustration. I didn’t know what my kid had turned in. I had no way to check it.”

She’s decided to keep her daughter in her current school in the Kent district because she has faith in the teacher to whom her daughter will likely be assigned.

As families confront the uncertainty of a new school year and reflect on what was, for many, a frustrating experience in the spring, more are turning to public online schools, which have curriculum already created for virtual instruction and teachers who are used to teaching remotely. School districts that had to turn on a dime in the spring and shift in-person instruction to virtual learning acknowledge it was bumpy and inconsistent. District leaders now say they’re using parent feedback to overhaul their virtual learning approaches and will provide more professional development to teachers.

But some families aren’t sticking around to see what Remote Learning 2.0 will look like. They’re enrolling in public online schools, which are hosted by mostly rural school districts such as Omak, and are paid for with state tax dollars.

Online schools also have their drawbacks, including math test scores that are lower than the state average, and in some cases, low graduation rates.

Nevertheless, they’re proving to be a popular choice right now.

Summer Shelton, head of schools for Washington Virtual Academies (known as WAVA for short), said enrollment was about 4,300 students at the beginning of this year. But she said the schools have seen so much demand from across the state that she asked the Omak district for permission to expand up to about 7,000 students, including hiring dozens more teachers, who are employed by the Omak district.

But that could financially hurt school districts that see a drop in enrollment as students withdraw and sign up to public online schools.

That’s something that Jennifer Bardsley, a parent in Edmonds, has been thinking about.

“The major concern I have is taking money away from my local school and giving it to a different school district,” she said. “That’s my primary concern.”

But Bardsley has decided to enroll her daughter in sixth grade at WAVA. One big reason is that her daughter has dyslexia. She said that families in the dyslexia community had recommended WAVA because it offers specialized curriculum for children with the learning disorder.

Summer Shelton said she doesn’t think school districts will take a big financial hit because of students leaving to sign up at online schools.

“I don’t think it will be destabilizing because it’s not like all 2,500 (additional) students are coming from Pierce County or King County,” she said. “It’s across the state of Washington and that’s a small percentage of students across the state of Washington.”

And yet, this isn’t the only option that could draw students away from their regular schools. Some families may opt to home school their kids or enroll them in private school. All of that could result in a decline in enrollment that would translate into less funding from the state.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.