A recent story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution points out that the state’s largest charter school, Georgia Cyber Academy, with 13,000 online students received a D for 2015 from the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement.
This story is of particular interest in Alabama where charters will soon be a reality. Here are excerpts:
“Georgians spend tens of millions of dollars a year on one of the biggest online schools in the nation, yet nearly every measure indicates the high-tech, online education model has not worked for many of its more than 13,000 students.
Georgia Cyber Academy students log onto online classes from home, where they talk to and message with teachers and classmates and do assignments in a way that will “individualize their education, maximizing their ability to succeed,” according to an advertisement. But results show that most of them lag state performance on everything from standardized test scores to graduation rates.
Since it opened with a couple thousand students in 2007, the academy has grown to become the state’s largest public school, with students from all 159 counties. In the 2015 fiscal year alone, it reported receiving $82 million in state and federal funding.
Families choose the academy for a variety of other reasons, such as a desire to learn at an individual pace, a medical condition that keeps kids at home or a need for a flexible schedule for work, such as a student with a budding acting career.
Evelyn Bailey, who graduated in May and will attend an Ivy League university this fall, said she was exposed to a diverse group of students through the classes and occasional organized field trips. Bailey thrived while attending class and doing homework on a computer screen in a windowless corner of her Douglasville basement.
“You have to be the kind of student that enjoys having more responsibility,” said Bailey, 18. “You have to be good at managing your time.”
Too few students apparently share her drive and temperament. The academy earned a “D” for 2015 from the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement. The academy scored near the bottom in the state that year for “growth,” a measure of how each student did on standardized state tests compared to others with similar past performance.
The graduation rate of 66 percent lagged behind the state average by 13 percentage points. Reading ability in third grade, a key marker of future academic success, also lagged, with 47 percent of its students able to digest books on their grade level versus a state average of 52 percent.
The academy is beset by many of the same problems that bedevil traditional public schools, including a high and rising number of students from families with meager incomes. Sixty nine percent of the academy’s students in 2015-16 were considered low-income under the federal school meal program; that’s 7 percentage points higher than the state average but below some metro Atlanta districts.
The school also grapples with high turnover. One in four academy students leaves each year; and about a third of the students are new in any given year, said Matt Arkin, the school’s founding head. It takes a year or more to adapt to a classroom on the computer, he said, adding that the performance looks better when counting only those who’ve been there for several years. For instance, for the 42 percent of students who start and finish high school there, the graduation rate is 85 percent. That is 19 percentage points higher than the school’s overall rate.
Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle, who spoke at the academy’s graduation ceremony, is optimistic about the school, but said it must make do with current funding.
“They have a very efficient model for the delivery of education, and they should be maximizing that,” he said. “K12 as an institution needs to be less concerned about money and more concerned about student achievement.”
Online charter schools have drawn critical attention nationwide, even from charter advocates. In mid-June, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools called for change citing research that found online charter schools had turned in “large-scale underperformance.”
Karega Rausch, vice president of research for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, which helped with the report, said virtual schools in Georgia and across the country are doing poorly on a host of measures. “There’s a whole lot of corroborating evidence to suggest there’s a problem,” he said. “A lot more authorizers need to close a lot more virtual schools. Period.”