Enrollment and Achievement in Ohio’s Virtual Charter Schools

August 02, 2016

Vertical Tabs

Fordham’s latest study, conducted by learning technology researcher June Ahn from NYU, dives into one of the most promising—and contentious—issues in education today: virtual schools. What type of students choose them? Which online courses do students take? Do virtual schools lead to improved outcomes for kids?

With over thirty-five thousand students enrolled in its fully online charter schools (“e-schools”), Ohio boasts one of the country’s largest populations of full-time virtual students. The sector has also grown tremendously, with a 60 percent increase in enrollment over the past four years—more than any other type of public school. Using four years of comprehensive student-level data to examine Ohio’s e-schools, the study finds: 

  • E-school students are mostly similar in race and ethnicity to students in brick-and-mortar district schools. But e-school students are lower-achieving (and more likely to have repeated the prior grade), more likely to participate in the federal free and reduced-price lunch program, and less likely to participate in gifted education.
  • Students taking online math courses are more likely to enroll in basic classes relative to students taking face-to-face courses. Almost no students take advanced math courses (like AP Statistics, Calculus, or Algebra II) online, especially compared to students who take face-to-face classes.
  • Across all grades and subjects, students who attend e-schools perform worse on state tests than otherwise-similar students who attend brick-and-mortar district schools, even accounting for prior achievement. In contrast, students in grades 4–8 who attend brick-and-mortar charter schools perform slightly better than their district school counterparts in both reading and math. Results are mixed but modest for students in grade ten.
  • Findings also suggest that e-schools drag down the performance of the entire charter sector.

Online schools offer an efficient way to diversify—and even democratize—education in a connected world. Yet they have received negative, but well-deserved, attention concerning their poor academic performance, attrition rates, and ill capacity to educate the types of students who enroll in them. This is especially true in Ohio, where virtual schools have failed (as yet) to realize their potential.

Using a slightly different analytical approach than CREDO’s Online Charter School Study (2015), Dr. Ahn’s results corroborate the disappointing findings on Ohio’s online schools. Bold changes in policy and practice are needed to ensure that these schools better serve their students. For advocates of online learning and educational choice, the work has just begun.

UPDATE: Silicon Valley Flex Academy closes due to financial hardship

Parents left scrambling to find new schools

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UPDATE: Silicon Valley Flex Academy closes due to financial hardship

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Hundreds of families were caught by surprise July 26 when they received email notification that Morgan Hill-based Silicon Valley Flex Academy was closing its doors less than three weeks before the start of the new school year.

Those parents—a majority whose children have special needs—are now scrambling to find new schools for their children.

“It was like being sucker-punched,” said single father Chris McKie, whose 13-year-old son who suffers from dyslexia was expecting to start the eighth grade at Flex as a first-year student. “It just knocked the wind out of our sails.”

But the school has a history of financial unsteadiness going back several months. County education officials have questioned Flex’s operational viability after discovering the academy had been submitting late and inconsistent financial statements and was regularly delinquent in its payment of county oversight fees and CALSTRS retirement payments.

McKie, however, met with the Flex principal and special education staff earlier in the summer before deciding on enrolling his son there and “it seemed to be a perfect match,” he said.

Flex, a free public charter school authorized through the Santa Clara County Office of Education beginning in 2011, was granted a five-year renewal from the county board back in November 2015. The 6th through 12th grade secondary school, located at 610 Jarvis Drive, boasted a blended learning model by combining an online K12, Inc. curriculum with offline lessons and small-sized breakout sessions.

However, in the July 27 email authored by Flex Board President Mark Kushner, parents were notified that the school was closing. Kushner blamed the school’s service provider K12 for terminating its service contract with Flex on July 1.

“While the Board disagrees with K12’s grounds to terminate the service contract, it cannot operate the school without K12’s financial support, and does not have alternative funding for the school,” Kushner wrote. “Silicon Valley Flex has served its students and families well for the past five years, and our sincere hope was to find a way to ensure it could continue to do so. Sadly, in the past week it became clear that we are simply out of options and can wait no longer.”

For the past five years, K12 provided all of its products and services, including on-site staff to Flex, at no fee for each upcoming year, according to Mike Kraft, Vice President of Communications for K12.

“However, even with this, the school’s budget could not support the school’s operations. In the past, although not contractually obligated to do so, K12 had advanced the school additional funding to cover this structural deficit,” Kraft explained. “The company was not, however, able to do so going forward and made the board aware of this in the Fall of 2015.”

Flex is the only K12 school in California that is closing, Kraft said.

Parents surprised

Kushner’s message came as a complete shock to parent Mary Joy, whose 12-year-old son with Asperger’s syndrome was planning to enter his second year at Flex as a seventh grader.

“I’m definitely frustrated because apparently they’ve known since the first of July. I understand they were trying to pull out all the stops in trying to figure out a way to stay open,” Joy said. “But it definitely would have been useful to get this information to families at that time.”

Joy explained that Flex was “a really good fit” for her son with flexible scheduling and small class sizes. Now, with the 2016-17 school year only weeks away, there are “very limited options” in Morgan Hill for her son and it would be difficult to home-school since she and her husband both work.

McKie said he’s already been in contact with staff at Morgan Hill Unified School District and is considering Britton Middle School for his son, but is still looking for other options.

“Two and half weeks before the start of school is a huge surprise. I can’t even guess what all the other families who are affected are going through,” McKie said. “It must be a mad scramble.”

In March, the Times published a story about the county’s concerns over Flex’s operations and the possibility of revoking its charter if they were not fixed. County staff claimed “significant” discrepancies with Flex’s finances and enrollment numbers. However, then head of school Caroline Wood brushed off any concerns as minor, claimed to have “a great working relationship” with county staff and even slammed the Times report in a rebuttal letter to the editor.

“Ultimately, I don’t think this is going to slow the school down,” said Wood in March. She claimed then that Flex had 314 students enrolled for the 2016-17 school year with even more expected to commit prior to the start of school.

County board member Claudia Rossi, of Morgan Hill, originally voted in favor of the five-year renewal back in November that passed by a 5-2 margin, but became increasingly wary of Flex since then.

“It’s not unexpected. We are not surprised,” said Rossi when contacted Wednesday morning. “At the time, our board did everything it could to be as supportive as possible. They fell under their own weight.”

Rossi said county staff was constantly dealing with issue after issue regarding Flex but it is their role as authorizers to be supportive and work with them to remedy any shortcomings. In the November renewal hearing, Rossi said Flex officials told the county board that enrollment was up, staffing was fine, funding was not a problem and they were being creative to make the school viable.

“The parent community was asking us to give them a chance to succeed,” said Rossi, who added that MHUSD was made aware of Flex’s situation and has been in contact with local families.

Kushner explained in his email on behalf of the entire Flex board that “this late notice is very unfortunate,” but they did not want to put families in an even worse situation by closing mid-year.

“Our first and highest priority is always the wellbeing of the students,” said County Superintendent Jon Gundry, who has been in contact with MHUSD Superintendent Steve Betando “to ensure students and families will have options and opportunities following this decision by the Silicon Valley Flex Academy board.”

K12, the school’s service provider that pulled the funding, has been under fire by state officials, recently agreeing to a multi-million dollar settlement in a case brought by the California Attorney General’s Office. A story on the settlement and the AG’s accusations can be viewed at morganhilltimes.com.

Scott Forstner is a general assignment reporter who covers education and other community issues for the Morgan Hill Times. Reach him at (408) 963-0122 or via email at sforstner@morganhilltimes.com

Charter school organizations take stand against virtual schools

Dive Brief:

  • The National Alliance for Public Charter schools, the 50-State Campaign for Achievement Now, and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers released a call to action Thursday to hold full-time virtual charter schools accountable for student performance.
  • The joint report highlights research showing that students who attend these schools perform worse than their traditional public school counterparts on virtually every metric and across all subgroups, and it calls on charter school authorizers to make renewal and closure decisions based on progress toward rigorous performance goals.
  • The report also encourages statewide enrollment caps at virtual charter schools, enrollment criteria so only students who would be best-served by virtual schools get in, and funding levels based on performance and real costs of operating such schools.

Dive Insight:

One complaint of the rise of virtual charter schools has been the lack of cost-savings for traditional districts that have to funnel a portion of their funding to the charters. Virtual schools, with no brick-and-mortar maintenance or transportation costs, and higher student-to-teacher ratios should be expected to operate with lower per-student funding than traditional schools. Critics have accused major players in the virtual charter school space, like K12 Inc., of operating with too-high profits. The CEO of the massive virtual school earned more than $5.3 million in total compensation in 2015, according to SEC filings.

Virtual charter schools defend their student performance by saying they attract students traditional schools have failed, arguing they serve cohorts who come to them already behind. More rigorous performance standards would have to take student demographics into account when setting expectations.

Recommended Reading

U.S. News & World Report:
Charter Groups Call Out Virtual Schools

Michael Stratford:
Revamping virtual charter schools

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Teachers claim virtual charter school company inflates enrollment

By Jane Meredith Adams | | 5 Comments

More than 30 teachers at the largest online charter school network in California filed complaints against their employer on Thursday, alleging that the schools violated state and federal laws by failing to provide special education services, inflating enrollment figures and paying for conferences in Yosemite and Palm Springs with federal money intended for students from low-income families.

The teachers filed their complaints – 69 in all – with the California Department of Education, county superintendents and nine school districts that oversee nine branches of the California Virtual Academies schools. The network operates 11 schools in California with an enrollment of 14,500 students.

“There is little oversight of virtual public schools in California,” said Cara Bryant, a longtime California Virtual Academies teacher and current teacher trainer based out of the branch known as CAVA @ Sonoma, in a statement.

“I do not believe all students are getting the education they need enrolled in CAVA,” Bryant said.

K12 Inc., the parent company of California Virtual Academies, denied the allegations and suggested they were part of an effort to unionize teachers at the schools. Other allegations included the illegal sharing of confidential student information, such as Individualized Education Plans for special education students, with all teachers; failing to keep adequate financial reserves; and failing to improve a pattern of sub-par student academic achievement and graduation rates.

At the CAVA@Los Angeles school, for example, 274 students were enrolled in the 12th grade in 2012-13 but none of those who graduated had completed all the courses required for UC or CSU admission.

“The latest round of complaints filed by a small group of individuals are consistent with prior complaints brought against the California Virtual Academies by various labor organizations seeking to represent CAVA certified teachers,” said Katrina Abston, head of schools for the network, in a statement from K12.

Some teachers at the California Virtual Academies have formed a group known as the California Virtual Educators that is seeking to unionize and affiliate with the California Teachers Association, according to Stacie Bailey, a high school science teacher at California Virtual Academies.

“As with the prior complaints, CAVA absolutely believes these current complaints are without merit,” Abston said. The charter schools undergo annual financial audits by independent external auditors, Abston said, and have “a strong record of compliance.”

David Thoming, superintendent of the New Jerusalem Elementary School District, said the district would investigate the complaints and asked the letter writers to send evidence of non-compliance. Families in the New Jerusalem district have been very happy with the CAVA@San Mateo school, he said, which provides homeschool families a structured curriculum and high school students a more flexible schedule. One student in the district is an accomplished gymnast who is enrolled in CAVA@San Mateo so she can take classes around her workout schedule.

“They love it,” Thoming said. “They wouldn’t be as large as they are if families didn’t like it.”

He added, “No one’s forcing them to go there and along the same line, for the teachers, no one’s forcing them to work there.”

Links to the complaints can be found on the California Virtual Educators website. The California Virtual Academy schools named in the complaints and the districts that oversee them are:

  • CAVA@Fresno – Orange Center School District
  • CAVA@Jamestown – Jamestown Elementary School District
  • CAVA@Kings – Armona Union Elementary School District
  • CAVA@Los Angeles – West Covina Unified School District
  • CAVA@Maricopa and CAVA@Maricopa High – Maricopa Unified School District
  • CAVA@San Diego – Spencer Valley Elementary School District
  • CAVA@San Joaquin – New Jerusalem Elementary School District
  • CAVA@San Mateo – Jefferson Elementary School District
  • CAVA@Sutter – Meridian Elementary School District

Jane Meredith Adams covers student health and well-being.

Criticism escalates for online charter operator

By John Fensterwald | June 27, 2016 | No Comments

Credit: OJO for iStock.

(Updated  June 28 with statement from K12, Inc.)

A full audit by the state controller and legislation that will be heard this week could threaten the operation of California Virtual Academies, a network of nonprofit online charter schools tied to the publicly traded education company K12, Inc.

On Friday, the office of State Controller Betty Yee announced it will conduct a $300,000 audit of CAVA in the wake of news media reports of questionable attendance records, poor academic performance of its 14,000 students and evidence of a conflict of interest regarding the nonprofit school’s connections to its sole-source supplier and operator, K-12. If the audit substantiates mismanagement and improprieties, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson could recommend that the State Board of Education revoke CAVA’s charters.

On Wednesday, the Senate Education Committee will take up Assembly Bill 1084, authored by Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, D-Concord. Primarily targeting K12, Inc., it would ban nonprofit online charters from contracting with for-profit companies for instructional services. The bill also would eliminate for-profit online charter schools, of which there are a handful in California.

The bill stands a good chance of making it to Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk. The Legislature passed a less sweeping version – banning for-profit online charters but failing to address the K12, Inc.-CAVA connection – last year. But Brown vetoed AB 787, and in his veto message wrote, “I don’t believe the case has been made to eliminate for-profit charter schools in California.” And he cautioned about using “somewhat ambiguous language” that could be interpreted to “restrict the ability of non-profit charter schools to continue using for-profit vendors.”

Bonilla is convinced that mounting criticism of profit-driven online charters, CAVA in particular, and calls within the charter industry for reform warrant tight restrictions. And she said for-profit companies shouldn’t be running charter schools. “There is a conflict between making money for shareholders and spending it for educating students,” she said.

In a statement Tuesday, Mike Kraft, vice president of finance and communications for Virginia-based K12, Inc., wrote, “There has been an enormous amount of misrepresentations made about the California Virtual Academy, CAVA, schools as a result of unfair and biased reporting, and by the agenda of some Sacramento special interests. Each of the CAVA schools we serve are transparent and are also audited each year by the California Department of Education for compliance with state education laws and regulations.”

“The CAVA schools and their Boards will work with the Controller to review the various issues identified,” he continued, “and we believe the result of the audit will clarify the many inaccurate reports and allegations that are circulating about the CAVA schools.”

The California Charter Schools Association estimates that 2 to 3 percent of the state’s charter schools are affiliated with or run by for-profit entities and enroll 20,000 to 30,000 students – 4 to 5 percent of charter school students in 2015-16. Only one organization, Opportunities for Learning, with six schools, is an actual for-profit corporation, according to the association.

CAVA, with 14 schools, enrolls approximately 14,000 students. In a two-part investigation by reporter Jessica Calefati this year, the Mercury News reported that fewer than half of CAVA students graduate, and “almost none” pass the courses required for admission to the California State University and the University of California. CAVA told the newspaper that the graduation rate for students who stick with the program for all four years is 79 percent, about the state average. Go here for its response to the series.

The newspaper reported that CAVA teachers were instructed to record the attendance of students who check in online for as little as one minute daily, enabling the school to bill the state for a full day’s tuition payments. In June 2015, more than 30 CAVA teachers filed complaints with the state and charter authorizing districts charging that CAVA violated state and federal laws by failing to provide special education services and inflating enrollment figures. CAVA denied all of the charges, and suggested they were part of an effort to unionize teachers at the schools (see EdSource story).

Related

A study of online charters in California by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes, or CREDO, at Stanford University found that online students were far behind their classroom-based peers. Based on test scores, CAVA students on average fell a third of a year behind their peers in math.

Virtual schools fall under the larger category of independent study schools under current state law. Because of how they are geographically located, CAVA’s charters can enroll students in all but remote counties in Northern California. The Mercury News reported that CAVA prefers to pursue authorizing approval through small districts without the capacity for effective oversight. The California Virtual Academy of San Mateo is authorized by the 7,000-student Jefferson Elementary School District in Daly City, which, the newspaper reported, has taken in more than $1 million in oversight fees during the past decade. The superintendent acknowledged that he knew little about the charter organization’s operation that his district by law is required to monitor.

Independence questioned

The state controller’s audit will examine whether the boards of trustees of the CAVA campuses have maintained the arm’s-length distance in their dealings with K12, Inc. that the law requires between charitable organizations and entities they contract with. The Mercury News investigation found that K12, Inc. named the trustees of the CAVA of San Mateo, who routinely approved all motions at meetings run by a K12 employee. By providing all instruction services, such has hiring and managing teachers and running the school operation, K12, Inc. is entitled to as much as 75 percent of a school’s revenue, the Mercury New reported.

In a report earlier this month, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers pointed to “significant problems” with online charter schools and concluded, “Left unchecked, these problems have the potential to overshadow the positive impacts this model currently has on some students. We urge state leaders and authorizers to address these problems head on instead of turning a blind eye to them.” The associations called for enrollment criteria for admission to online charters, caps on school enrollments and for regional charter authorizers with the expertise to oversee online charter schools.

Colin Miller, vice president of policy at the California Charter Schools Association, disagreed with the report’s recommendations but said that his association “shares some of the same concerns” about for-profit charters and is “open to middle ground” on restricting them.

AB 1084 would define online charters as schools in which “at least 80 percent of teaching and pupil interaction occurs via the Internet.” It would “prohibit a charter school from contracting with a for-profit entity for the provision of instructional services.” Bonilla said it was written this way to exclude the purchase of textbooks and curricular materials from for-profit companies.

But Eric Premack, executive director and founder of the Sacramento-based Charter Schools Development Center, said the bill raises “basic definitional issues” that Brown foreshadowed in his veto message last year.

“A lot of charters contract for special education services and for staff development. What do you mean by instructional services, and where do you draw the line?” he asked.

John Fensterwald covers education policy.

Learning company that once served local districts focus of state audit

Posted:

Learning company that once served local districts focus of state audit

SACRAMENTO — An online learning company that once partnered with Lodi Unified School District to serve its students is the focus of a state audit, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson announced this week.

The California Department of Education has contracted with the State Controller’s Office to conduct an audit of California Virtual Academies and the group’s related charter schools because serious questions have been raised about a number of their practices. It is expected to be completed next March.

“The goal of the audit is to make sure these schools are spending public education funds properly and serving their students well,” Torlakson said in a press release.

The State Controller’s office will conduct the review of CAVA and related charter schools to verify whether these non-profit schools:

• Are organizationally separate from K-12, Inc. a for-profit company that these non-profit charter schools contract with.

• Accurately reported attendance, enrollment, and dropout graduation rates to the California Department of Education.

• Appropriately allocated and reported shared expenses.

• Appropriately identified, accounted for and disclosed related-party relationships.

According to a lawsuit filed in San Francisco two years ago, the same organization was accused of diverting students and money to its own charter schools.

The lawsuit was filed by David Ehrenfeld, a former employee of K12, Inc. who helped the company enter a contract with Lodi Unified to create an online learning program. He claimed in his lawsuit that K12 later tried to siphon students and money into a charter school owned by K12.

Ehrenfeld, who was seeking back wages and lost commissions from K12, was the national account manager for Lodi Unified, an online program for Elk Grove Unified School District and K12’s California Virtual Academy-San Joaquin, which was overseen by Stockton Unified.

Although not specifically named in the suit, Lodi Unified entered a contract in spring 2011 with K12 to begin an online learning program for students, but the program fizzled and was not continued after two school years.

The virtual academy used one part-time and one full-time district teacher specially trained by K12, and was overseen by an Independence School administrator at Henderson School. Students were required to visit Independence School regularly to meet with a teacher to discuss progress and turn in coursework.

But the academy closed in Lodi Unified in 2013, when district officials said enrollment expectations were not met. There were only 12 students during the first school year, according to district figures, although K12 had promised at least 100 students when the program was approved by the school board.

In his lawsuit, Ehrenfeld claimed that K12 diverted students into CAVA, shifting state money based on student attendance. His also contended that unnamed clients discovered and reported that K12 was diverting students intending to enroll in public school district-operated independent study programs into K12-operated public charter schools, including CAVA.

State records show that, while Lodi’s virtual academy sputtered for lack of students, state apportionment based on CAVA’s student enrollment nearly tripled — from 559 students to 1,512 — during the time period K12 served Lodi Unified, according to the State Department of Education.

The suit did not list damages to Lodi Unified or any other district that affiliated with K12, as Ehrenheld was solely seeking compensatory damages for personal wage and benefit loss. It is unclear whether there was a resolution in the case

In a previous interview, Tim Hern, Lodi Unified’s chief business officer, said records indicate the district split student income with K12, with the district drawing $46,380 and K12 receiving $17,615. The balance was used to offset the district’s cost of instructors for the program.

Under its contract with the district, K12 coordinated and oversaw student enrollment. Hern said that arrangement could mean the district would not have been aware of irregularities in student transfers.

“Because they were handling enrollment, I don’t think we would have ever known that, if it was happening,” Hern previously said.

The K12 program was launched before he joined the district, and the district officials who orchestrated the program have since left.

This is a smart kid.  He would have done well no matter what school he was in, as long as his parents advocated for him.  K12 is just lucky enough that his parents chose them.  They really had nothing to do with his success.  

Submitted by K12 Inc. on Thu, 06/16/2016 – 2:27pm

GCA Salutatorian Kevin Abraham shows off his newly-awarded diploma at graduation on May 21st, 2016.

Georgia Cyber Academy (GCA) student Kevin Abraham has always been ahead of the game when it comes to his studies. This held true for his graduation day, as GCA’s Salutatorian took the stage at age 15!

Kevin’s road to early graduation began when he skipped kindergarten, tested out of 7th grade math while in the 6th grade, and tested out of 11th grade math at the end of his 7th grade year. Kevin began online schooling at Michigan Virtual Charter Academy (MVCA).

When his family moved to Georgia, Kevin remained within the K12 family and began his schooling at GCA during the spring semester of 10th grade. This culminated in early graduation for Kevin, one of GCA’s 701 graduating seniors in 2016.

Such an extraordinary high school experience required extraordinary teachers and administrators to make it all happen. Kevin notes that his teachers were always ready to help, both inside and outside of their areas of academic expertise. The counselors were constantly willing to lend a hand, as well.

“Since I was not taking a traditional route through high school, the counselors, especially Mr. Tim Melvin, were very helpful in getting the details worked out in time for graduation,” Kevin said.

Additionally, the structure of online schooling helped Kevin. “The one thing I enjoyed most about Georgia Cyber Academy, and online schooling in general, is the flexibility,” Kevin said.

Such flexibility allowed Kevin to pursue an accelerated academic path and to take dual enrollment classes at a local college. It also allowed Kevin to visit his grandparents in India while simultaneously attending school.

Kevin, who has been taking mainly dual enrollment classes for the past two years, says GCA provided him with a solid learning foundation. Kevin already knew much of the college material being taught in his first year of dual enrollment from his lessons with GCA!

“I feel the curriculum prepared me for a college education extremely well,” Kevin said.

Kevin will attend Georgia Institute of Technology in the fall to pursue a major in Computer Engineering. 

California Virtual Academies: Is online charter school network cashing in on failure?

By Jessica Calefati, jcalefati@bayareanewsgroup.com

Posted:
 
04/17/2016 04:59:01 AM PDT

The TV ads pitch a new kind of school where the power of the Internet allows gifted and struggling students alike to “work at the level that’s just right for them” and thrive with one-on-one attention from teachers connecting through cyberspace. Thousands of California families, supported with hundreds of millions in state education dollars, have bought in.

But the Silicon Valley-influenced endeavor behind the lofty claims is leading a dubious revolution. The growing network of online academies, operated by a Virginia company traded on Wall Street called K12 Inc., is failing key tests used to measure educational success.

Fewer than half of the students who enroll in the online high schools earn diplomas, and almost none of them are qualified to attend the state’s public universities.

Elizabeth Novak-Galloway, 12, who used to be an A student, received C’s because she was missing work she never knew had been assigned, her mother said.
(Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)

An investigation of K12-run charter schools by this newspaper also reveals that teachers have been asked to inflate attendance and enrollment records used to determine taxpayer funding.

Launched with fanfare and promise, online schools such as K12 are compiling a spotty record nationwide, but highly motivated students with strong parental support can succeed in them. In California, however, those students make up a tiny fraction of K12’s enrollment. The result — according to an extensive review of complaints, company records, tax filings and state education data — is that children and taxpayers are being cheated as the company takes advantage of a systemic breakdown in oversight by local school districts and state bureaucrats.

At the same time, K12’s heavily marketed school model has been lucrative, helping the company rake in more than $310 million in state funding over the past 12 years, as well as enriching sponsoring school districts, which have little stake in whether the students succeed.

“Sometimes I feel like a terrible parent for enrolling them,” said Carol Brockmeier, a single mother from Santa Clara whose teenage daughters for a year attended K12’s San Mateo County-based academy, which serves an area stretching from Santa Cruz to San Francisco.

K12 is the nation’s largest player in the online school market. In California, it manages four times as many schools as its closest competitor, filling a small but unique niche among the state’s roughly 1,200 charter schools. And despite a dismal record of academic achievement in California and several other states — including Ohio, Pennsylvania and Tennessee — the business regularly reports healthy profits.

“This company has shown an inordinate level of failure, yet it’s continually given lifelines by policymakers who have irresponsibly ignored what’s going on,” said Luis Huerta, a Columbia University associate professor of education and public policy who is one of the nation’s leading experts on online education.

Taking a closer look

K12 was launched in 2000 by Ronald Packard, a former Goldman Sachs banker, and William Bennett, U.S. secretary of education under President Ronald Reagan, with seed money from Oracle chief executive Larry Ellison and disgraced junk bond king Michael Milken.

The company opened its first California Virtual Academies in San Diego, Kern and Tuolumne counties 14 years ago and has watched enrollment in the 17 schools it operates grow from several hundred students in 2002 to more than 15,000 today. Under state law, each academy may enroll students who live in adjoining counties. That means California children who live almost anywhere south of Humboldt County can sign up for one of K12’s schools.

To understand how the network of online academies operates, this newspaper reviewed hundreds of pages of education and tax records, examined complaints filed with public agencies and lawsuits, and interviewed dozens of parents, teachers and students affiliated, or once affiliated, with the schools. The investigation found:

• Students who spend as little as one minute during a school day logged on to K12’s school software may be counted as present in records used to calculate the amount of funding the schools get from the state.

• About half of the schools’ students are not proficient in reading, and only a third are proficient in math — levels that fall far below statewide averages.

• School districts that are supposed to oversee the company’s schools have a strong financial incentive to turn a blind eye to problems: They get a cut of the academies’ revenue, which largely comes from state coffers.

• Michael Kirst, president of the State Board of Education, worked for K12 as a consultant before Gov. Jerry Brown appointed him to the post in 2011. In March 2015, the board voted against shuttering a school run by the company that California Department of Education staff said should close because it was in financial disarray, marking the only time such a recommendation has been ignored.

K12 repeatedly declined this newspaper’s requests to interview its executives about its California schools’ academic programs and finances, citing an ongoing investigation by Attorney General Kamala Harris into California’s for-profit online schools. In a series of emails, however, K12 spokesman Mike Kraft defended the schools’ academic performance, arguing that “they will not have the same test scores as schools in high-funded districts with favorable demographics.”

“Many families choose online schools because they are fleeing a school or situation that wasn’t working for their child,” wrote Kraft, K12’s vice president for finance and communications. “Their academic performance expectations should be put into context.”

Students’ struggles

K12’s virtual schools have no classrooms, no buildings and no routine face-to-face interaction between teachers and students. Instead, teachers sign on mostly from home and connect to students over the Internet.

“Being in this school can feel so lonely,” said Alexandria Brockmeier, 17, who asked her mother to enroll her in an online school in late 2014 because she felt she didn’t fit in at Santa Clara High School.

Her school day began whenever she booted up her computer and logged on to the company’s programs. Since all lectures are recorded and can be listened to later, the students aren’t required to attend class or participate in real time. So, Alexandria said, she rarely did.

If questions popped up while she was working independently, she would often email her teachers seeking help. But Alexandria said they didn’t always respond and weren’t always available to tutor her one-on-one, even though the company heavily promotes personal attention in advertisements.

Kraft, K12’s spokesman, said the schools’ policy is for teachers to reply to student emails within 24 hours on school days, but most responses take far less time. Occasionally, however, responses take longer — for example, when teachers are out sick or on leave, he said.

Alexandria had been failing several of her classes when, in January, she suddenly lost access to K12’s software. Her mother, Carol, said she learned the following day that Alexandria and her sister, Jenna, had been locked out without warning because they’d fallen so far behind in their schoolwork.

“I’m disappointed in myself, my kids and this school system,” said Carol, who works full time at Mission College in Santa Clara and has been raising the girls on her own since her husband died in 2011 from early onset Alzheimer’s disease. “I’m stressed to the nth degree.”

As a special education student, Jenna — before she and her sister were forced to withdraw — was supposed to receive extra time to complete assignments and extra support from teachers. But, her mother said, she didn’t get it, and that made things even tougher for Jenna, 15.

“If I could stay home with the kids and say, ‘OK, let’s do this lesson,’ maybe it would have worked out for them,” Carol said.

Jenna isn’t the only K12 student in California who has gone without special education services, according to formal complaints filed by academy teachers with local school districts and county offices of education last year seeking investigations into the adequacy of special education provided by K12 schools. The services students are being denied range from speech therapy to counseling to daily in-person tutoring, the complaints allege.

Kraft said the company believes the complaints are “without merit.”

Not all parents and students are dissatisfied with the K12 model, which can work for highly motivated and closely monitored students such as Lillian Lewis, an 11-year-old Pleasanton gymnast who trains at least six hours a day and dreams of competing in the Olympics. That discipline, along with support from her parents, makes her a good fit for her online school, California Virtual Academy at San Joaquin.

“We didn’t know what to expect at first, but so far it’s working out great,” said Lillian’s mother, Milly, who signed her up last summer.

Elizabeth Novak-Galloway, 12, center, seen with mother Gabriela Novak and sister Kira, 8, was pulled from a K12 school by her mom. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)

But most students who end up in online schools are far less successful.

Gabriela Novak says she pulled her daughter Elizabeth from K12’s San Mateo County school after a year because the difficulty communicating with her overworked, disorganized teachers was maddening. Throughout sixth grade, Elizabeth’s teachers repeatedly assured her mother and Elizabeth that she was all caught up with her assignments.

But at the end of the year, her report card showed several C’s because she was missing work she never knew had been assigned, her mother said. The experience shot the confidence of the onetime A student and left her desperately behind her peers academically when she enrolled in a San Francisco Unified brick-and-mortar school.

“She doesn’t believe in herself anymore,” Novak said. “We’re trying to get her back on track, but it’s not going to be easy.”

Kraft said that since parents and students can track online classwork in “near real-time,” the final grades shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

Widespread problems

It’s not uncommon for students to struggle in online schools such as the ones run by K12, said Gary Miron, a professor of education at Western Michigan University and another leading expert in online education. He pointed to a study published in October by a research group called Mathematica that found the vast majority of students in online schools suffered because of the lack of a structured learning environment where live classroom attendance is required.

“A school that requires such little contact with teachers might be appropriate for students at the graduate level,” he said, “but it’s surely not appropriate for students in kindergarten through 12th grade.”

Kraft confirmed that the company’s schools do not require “live attendance.” Instead, he said, teachers work with students to develop a program that fits their individual needs.

A scathing report published in October by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, or CREDO, found that most online charter students across the country had far weaker academic growth than their peers in brick-and-mortar public schools.

Each 180-day school year, students are supposed to gain an equivalent number of days of learning in each of their core subjects as measured by standardized state tests. Instead, online charter students nationwide are advancing the equivalent of only 108 days in reading compared with their peers. And they’re not advancing at all in math.

The students are learning so little in that subject that it’s as if they hadn’t attended a single math class all year. And in California, the Stanford report shows, the students attending online schools such as those operated by K12 and other smaller companies are falling 58 days of math instruction behind their peers rather than advancing 180 days.

‘Shocking’ numbers

“Some of these numbers are pretty shocking,” said James Woodworth, a senior research analyst at CREDO who noted that these learning deficits are the largest the group has ever recorded in any of its research on different types of charter schools over the past 15 years.

Nationally, 70 percent of students enrolled in online charters attend schools managed by for-profit companies such as K12 and its leading competitor, Connections Academy, while 30 percent attend charters that are independent or run by nonprofits.

Kraft criticized the Stanford report’s methodology, pointing out that it did not account for how late in the school year online students might have enrolled or the reasons they left their local districts. In addition, he said, the students that K12 schools serve are generally more at risk, more disadvantaged and more likely to enter online charters after having struggled or failed in traditional schools.

A report last year by the Colorado-based National Education Policy Center, however, shows that the share of online school students across the country who are living in poverty, struggling with a disability or learning English as a second language is substantially lower than the national average for all public schools. And an analysis of the most recent state data by this newspaper shows that K12’s schools actually enroll fewer low-income students, English language learners and students from minority groups than public schools as a whole.

K12’s California Virtual Academy at San Mateo’s graduation rate is 39 percentage points below the statewide average of 78 percent, and none of the graduates met the entrance requirements for enrollment at a University of California or California State University campus, according to data collected by the state over a five-period ending in the 2013-14 school year.

K12’s other 16 schools graduated a total of only 56 students who met the requirements. Across the state, just under half of all public school graduates meet the standards. Kraft said so few of K12’s students met the requirements because UC and Cal State don’t accept arts and laboratory science courses completed at virtual and home schools. As a result, students must seek out alternative routes to qualify such as SAT and Advanced Placement tests or community college courses.

Asked why graduation rates at the company’s schools dip far below the state average, Kraft said the types of students who enroll often arrive off track for graduation. He provided the newspaper figures that are not tracked by the state to show that the graduation rate in 2014 for roughly 200 students who remained enrolled all four years in K12-run California schools is much higher — 79 percent.

“By accepting all students, even those already well behind pace for timely graduation, online public schools are serving an important mission but may have a substantially negatively impacted graduation rate,” he said.

Attendance policy

Some K12 teachers point to the school’s attendance policies to explain students’ lack of learning.

A handbook distributed to teachers at the start of the school year says attendance credit may be given even if “very few lessons are completed daily,” so long as the student is “actively engaged in completing assigned schoolwork.”

In a training session during the last school year, a California Virtual Academies administrator told teachers that students need “at least one minute of attendance in order to satisfy the attendance portion of our requirement,” according to a recording of the training obtained by this newspaper.

The lenient policy may have more to do with funding than keeping the truancy officer off students’ backs. State funding for California schools is based on a metric known as “average daily attendance.” The closer schools get to perfect attendance, the more money they receive.

Funding is linked to attendance instead of enrollment because research shows a strong association between showing up at school and success in class. Students who are chronically absent are more likely to drop out, become unemployed and end up on welfare, according to a report on truancy released in February by the state Attorney General’s Office.

Kraft said it was “incorrect” that the academy allowed students to log on for only one minute for a day’s attendance. He said that teachers are trained to review each student’s work and determine how many days of attendance to credit. Still, several teachers interviewed by this newspaper confirmed the policy, and in June a group of them filed formal complaints with local school districts and county offices of education seeking investigations of the schools’ attendance practices.

“One minute of work establishes attendance at this school, and in my many years as an educator, I’ve never heard of that,” said Ellen Welt, of San Jose, a former California Virtual Academy at San Mateo teacher. She resigned last summer out of frustration with some of the school’s policies.

Julianne Knapp, who teaches at the San Mateo County school, said she also thinks her students would be better off if participation in class were required. She said only a fraction of her 75 or so students regularly attend class, and she has no way of knowing if the others watch her recorded lessons.

“A minute a day is not OK with me,” said Knapp, who boots up her computer from her home in Campbell or a cavernous meeting room at a nearby public library to teach students through a virtual blackboard.

Under California law, a student is considered truant if he or she is absent without a valid excuse more than three days in a school year. A student who misses 18 days of school or more is considered chronically absent and would be flagged for intervention.

In separate complaints filed in June, the teachers seek investigations into the schools’ withdrawal policies because “many students who are not sufficiently attending school stay on the rolls with no action taken to withdraw them.”

Kraft disputed those complaints, insisting “California Virtual Academies follow state rules and regulations regarding the reporting of student attendance and the enrollment of students in its schools.”

Since the teachers filed their complaints and the attorney general started investigating, the company has been cracking down harder on students, such as the Brockmeiers, who were chronically absent, Knapp said.

But during the last school year, she taught a student who was absent for 45 days straight, yet she was unable to remove him from her rolls or help him find another school that might have been a better fit. School administrators wouldn’t allow it, she said.

“For all I know, he was reading Russian novels this whole time,” Knapp quipped. “In reality, he wasn’t learning anything, and that’s not fair to him.”

Julianne Knapp, who teaches for the K12-run San Mateo County school, works alone, instructing her online students through a virtual blackboard. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)

Districts benefit

In California, bureaucrats don’t monitor the day-to-day operations of charter schools. Instead, state law requires districts that vet and approve charter applications to oversee the schools once they open. But there are no guarantees — and no monitoring from the Department of Education — to assure that is happening.

Jefferson Elementary School District is responsible for overseeing California Virtual Academy at San Mateo’s operations, and the duty comes with a reward. The school has paid the district more than $1 million in oversight fees since the small Daly City-based school system approved the academy’s application in 2006, allowing it to enroll students of all ages who live in San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties.

Larger schools pay even more. The Los Angeles academy, which enrolls quadruple the number of students as the San Mateo academy, typically pays the West Covina Unified School District more than $1 million a year.

The academy in San Joaquin County — where Alameda and Contra Costa county students may enroll — has paid $763,000 to its sponsoring district since 2007. The Sonoma County academy, which serves students in the North Bay, has paid its sponsor $889,000.

Regular charter schools often pay similar fees, but their authorizers are more inclined to take the job seriously, experts say, in part because they have a financial incentive. San Jose Unified, for example, oversees brick-and-mortar charter schools that serve students who might re-enroll in the district’s schools and bring their per-pupil state aid with them if the charter fails. Districts that oversee online schools are looking after kids who hail from dozens of districts and who can become as invisible as the schools themselves.

In an interview last year, Jefferson Elementary Superintendent Bernie Vidales conceded that he knew very little about the online school for which he’s responsible. Vidales said he wasn’t sure how many kids were enrolled, where they lived or even how well they had done on the last round of state tests — even though the California Charter Schools Association insists state law requires authorizers to monitor student performance closely.

The test results are easily accessible online. During the 2012-13 school year, the last before California switched to a new state test, California Virtual Academy at San Mateo earned an Academic Performance Index score of 747 — below the state average of 791 and Jefferson’s average score of 815. The academy’s rating also ranks lower than each of the district’s 15 schools.

Vidales acknowledged that Jefferson Elementary is paid to look after the online school. With close to 1,000 pupils, it is easily the largest school the 6,000-student district oversees. But, he said, the district did little more than review the academy’s budget and make sure it has enough cash to cover costs.

In February, despite concerns raised by the school community, the Jefferson Elementary school board voted unanimously to approve the school’s charter to stay open another five years. At the meeting, it asked no questions after Vidales endorsed the school’s “reasonably sound education program with appropriate metrics to measure progress” and told the board he had turned down the school’s offer to supply documentation about its business practices because its auditors’ word “was sufficient for us, at least for me.”

When the newspaper asked Vidales last year about the district’s obligation to regulate the charter school, Vidales pinned the responsibility on the state.

“The biggest action we could take would be raising a red flag,” Vidales said.

But Cindy Chan, director of the California Department of Education’s Charter Schools Division, disputed this interpretation of state law and said the reverse is true: Authorizers such as Jefferson Elementary, not state bureaucrats, are primarily responsible for overseeing online schools.

“We support robust regulation,” but “when it comes to charter schools, state law provides (us) a very limited role,” Chan said.

When the newspaper last week asked Vidales about the state’s position, he agreed with Chan in part, acknowledging that the district would be required to address problems at the school, but he still believes the onus to investigate rests outside the district.

This disconnect exposes several gaps in state law, said Myrna Castrejón, who had been the California Charter Schools Association’s senior lobbyist before accepting a position in January as executive director of a charter advocacy organization called Great Public Schools Now. Schools that want limited oversight can seek approval from hands-off school districts, and no matter how little oversight the districts perform, most still get paid, she said.

One glaring example: In Southern California, a tiny district with 35 pupils called Spencer Valley Elementary is responsible for overseeing the more than 3,000 students who attend California Virtual Academy at San Diego.

Leniency in oversight

Another online academy’s overseer has been especially forgiving.

A few years ago, the California Charter Schools Association publicly called for California Virtual Academy at Kern to close because of low test scores. The request came three years after an investigation launched by the Kern County superintendent of schools revealed the school had falsely reported its teacher-student ratio on forms used to determine state funding, resulting in an overpayment of about $1 million.

But instead of closing the school, Maricopa Unified School District, the authorizer, allowed the academy to simply change its name to California Virtual Academy at Maricopa.

“Right now, we have no way to hold our authorizers accountable,” Castrejón said. “And that’s a problem.”

When the State Board of Education had the opportunity to revoke the charter of one of K12’s schools last year because of problems with its finances, something unprecedented happened. For the first time since California’s first charter school opened almost 25 years ago, state board members, including President Michael Kirst, ignored their staff’s recommendation to shut down the school and instead granted K12’s San Francisco Flex Academy — a school that combines online and regular instruction — an additional five years to operate.

Kirst, professor emeritus of education and business administration at Stanford University, sat on K12’s Education Advisory Committee — reporting between $1,000 and $10,000 of income in 2010 — before severing his ties to the company shortly before Brown appointed him to the Board of Education in 2011.

As part of his work for the company, Kirst spoke on behalf of K12’s San Mateo County school, among others, at public meetings. But he repeatedly declined to speak to this newspaper about K12’s track record in California.

Knowing that California’s top education officials supported the company responsible for her daughter’s academic woes makes Gabriela Novak’s blood boil.

“We trusted them,” she said, “and we feel totally betrayed.”

Database producer Daniel J. Willis contributed to this report. Contact Jessica Calefati at 916-441-2101. Follow her at Twitter.com/calefati.

Read Part 2 of this investigation: California Virtual Academies’ operator exploits charter, charity laws for money, experts say.

Georgia Cyber Academy Graduating Class to be Honored at Ceremony on May 21st

— Lt. Governor Cagle to address 2016 graduates, who have earned over $4.5 million in college scholarships —

06:00 ET
from Georgia Cyber Academy

ATLANTA, May 18, 2016 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ — Georgia Cyber Academy (GCA), an accredited, full-time, online public charter school, will celebrate the graduation of the Class of 2016 at noon on Saturday, May 21, 2016, at Cobb Galleria Centre in Atlanta. Georgia.  Lt. Governor Casey Cagle will provide the commencement address to nearly 450 graduates who have, to date, received over $4.5 million in scholarships including over $3.6 million in Hope Scholarship funds.

The first virtual charter school in Georgia history and currently the largest public school in Georgia, GCA is open to all students who reside in Georgia and serves students from all 159 counties across the state.

The graduation ceremony will also include an address from Ryan Mahoney, GCA Board Chair, as well as Stuart J. Udell, CEO of K12 Inc., the nation’s largest provider of proprietary curriculum and online education programs.

Recognized by the Georgia Department of Education as an AP STEM Achievement School, GCA gives advanced learners the ability to progress faster in subjects at which they excel, including opportunities for advancement in STEM education and through dual enrollment.

College or career minded GCA students can choose from a broad range of profession-focused courses in order to gain a competitive edge for the future, discover their path after high school, explore a possible college major, or take college courses for both high school and college credit at one of the 46 Georgia colleges and Universities that participate in GCA’s Dual Enrollment program.

During this school year the 85 GCA students that participated in the dual enrollment program earned a total of 1,617 college credits, or the equivalent of $889,350 in tuition savings.

Georgia Cyber Academy students are driven to succeed and passionate about their school and communities,” said Matthew Arkin, Head of School at Georgia Cyber Academy. “This Class of 2016 has impressed all of us with their motivation to learn and seek more out of their education.”

GCA senior Evelyn Bailey is this year’s Valedictorian, and she will address her fellow graduates at the ceremony. Evelyn plans to attend the University of Pennsylvania and study digital media design, focusing on the computer science behind animation.

“At GCA, I was able to create a unique class schedule that allowed me to take several college courses at Kennesaw State University during my senior year of high school,” said Evelyn, who enrolled at GCA when she was in 4th grade. “I could do my classwork and homework on my own time, as well as get involved in several extracurricular groups, including a writing club, National Honor Society, and Student Council.”

Other GCA graduates have been accepted into prestigious colleges and universities such as Brown, Georgia Tech, University of South Carolina, Morehouse College, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Tuskegee University and Full Sail University.

More information on GCA can be found online at the school website: http://gca.k12.com/.     

About Georgia Cyber Academy

Georgia Cyber Academy (GCA) is an accredited, full-time online public school program that serves students in grades K through 12. As part of the Georgia public school system, GCA is tuition-free, giving parents and families the choice to access the award-winning curriculum and tools provided by K12 Inc. (NYSE:  LRN), the nation’s largest provider of proprietary curriculum and online education programs. For more information about GCA, visit http://gca.k12.com/.    

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SOURCE Georgia Cyber Academy

Open Enrollment Ends Friday for Families Interested in Wisconsin Online Schools

— Wisconsin public school open enrollment for 2016-2017 school year ends April 29 at 4 PM CST —

06:00 ET
from Wisconsin Virtual Academy; Destinations Career Academy of Wisconsin

MCFARLAND, Wis., April 27, 2016 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ — Wisconsin Virtual Academy (WIVA) and Destinations Career Academy of Wisconsin, each a tuition-free online public charter school, reminds families with students in grades K-12 who are considering online school for the upcoming academic year to submit an application during the state’s Open Enrollment period which ends at 4 PM CST on Friday, April 29, 2016. Submitting an Open Enrollment Application does not commit families to enroll in either school for the upcoming 2016-2017 school year, but does provide them with the option to do so at a later date.   

"We focus on helping students find the learning style that works best for them," said Nicholaus Sutherland, Head of School at Wisconsin Virtual Academy and Destinations Career Academy. "We invite families to reach out for more information about each online school, whether they are struggling to make traditional school fit with their student’s educational needs or family’s lifestyle or looking to explore career options with career technical education (CTE) course offerings."

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Destinations Career Academy of Wisconsin

WIVA is an academic option for K-12 students statewide who seek alternatives to a traditional brick-and-mortar education. WIVA offers a mastery-based program for students in grades Kindergarten through 5th, in order to strengthen students’ understanding of the material. The WIVA middle and high school programs offer more than 150 courses with multiple academic levels. High school courses include core, comprehensive, Honors, and Advanced Placement – all designed to let students enjoy a program tailored to their goals and abilities.

Destinations Career Academy is open to students in grades 9-12. The school utilizes online career and college readiness curriculum designed to prepare students to enter the workforce or pursue other post-secondary options. Students can access multiple versions of core online high school courses and CTE courses in one of four Career Clusters:  Architecture and Construction; Business Management and Administration, Health Science, or Information Technology.  These Clusters are designed to give students a head start on their career goals by earning technical and specialty trade credentials, college career credits and workplace experiences. The school serves full-time students in addition to offering individual courses to students in schools that do not have access to CTE programs through Part Time Open Enrollment Course Options.

To help families learn more about each program before the state’s Open Enrollment deadline, the schools will each host an online information session this week. Destinations Career Academy will host an online information session at 7 PM CST on Thursday, April 28. WIVA will host an online information session at 10 AM CST on Friday, April 29.

About Wisconsin Virtual Academy
Wisconsin Virtual Academy (WIVA), a charter school authorized by the McFarland School District, is the largest full-time online public school serving students in grades K through 12 in the state. As part of the Wisconsin public school system, WIVA is tuition-free, giving parents and families the choice to access the award-winning curriculum and tools provided by K12 Inc., the nation’s largest provider of proprietary curriculum and online education programs. For more information about WIVA, visit http://wiva.k12.com/.

About Destinations Career Academy of Wisconsin
Destinations Career Academy of Wisconsin, a charter school authorized by the McFarland School District, is the first-ever career and technical education-focused online high school in Wisconsin using the curriculum and academic programs by K12 Inc. It is also the first career readiness program to offer a Construction apprenticeship program in partnership with industry leaders. As part of the Wisconsin public school system, Destinations Career Academy is tuition-free and serves students statewide in grades 9-12. For more information about Destinations Career Academy of Wisconsin, visit http://www.widca.k12.com/.

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SOURCE Wisconsin Virtual Academy; Destinations Career Academy of Wisconsin