Low-performing online school posts unprecedented enrollment growth, again

MALAD — A rural school district’s burgeoning virtual school continues to post the state’s most explosive enrollment growth, impacting millions of state dollars and thousands of students in the process.

And Oneida School District leaders plan to keep growing their virtual school, despite consistently low student test scores.

Since 2016, the remote Southeast Idaho district’s K-8 Idaho Home Learning Academy has added some 2,500 students, far exceeding growth at any other district or charter in Idaho. The students don’t walk the school’s halls because they learn remotely from various parts of the state.

Still, the digital influx brings millions of added annual tax dollars to the remote district headquartered in Malad, a sleepy town of some 2,100 people near the Utah border. The school has hired dozens of additional teachers and increased its annual allotment of state taxes by over $10 million in just three years. It became Idaho’s largest virtual school last year, with enrollment that now eclipses the town’s population by some 400 kids.

Much of the windfall goes toward maintaining the swelling virtual school. Last year alone, Oneida paid around $5 million to for-profit companies contracted to provide digital coursework to IHLA’s online learners.

Despite the unorthodox arrangement and low student performance, district leaders insist the program benefits a chunk of Idaho’s home schoolers by providing them with learning resources they wouldn’t otherwise have.

“I am convinced we are doing a good thing for these kids,” said IHLA principal Terri Sorenson.

How IHLA and other online programs work

Students enroll in virtual schools through a district or charter partnered with a company equipped to provide digital coursework.

The companies then recruit kids from across the state. Those who sign up are lumped into the district or charter “hosting” a particular company.

The Idaho Public Charter School Commission governs 14 of Idaho’s 18 virtual schools. The commission’s schools account for about 62 percent of virtual enrollment in Idaho, or about 5,201 students, with districts — predominately Oneida — enrolling the rest.

Like brick-and-mortar schools, online schools report attendance to the state and receive a commensurate measure of tax dollars to cover program costs. Most of the money goes to the companies and certified Idaho teachers hired to teach kids remotely.

Oneida contracts with three digital curriculum providers:

Oneida hires, pays and evaluates nearly 100 certified Idaho teachers who work from home to help parents from across the state teach their kids. Each teacher is assigned to about 30 online learners.

Sorenson evaluates IHLA teachers by live-streaming teaching sessions or asking teachers to upload and share prerecorded sessions. She uses a version of the Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching, the model used in districts and charters across the state, to evaluate teachers.

In addition to the influx of state dollars used to fund teacher salaries, Oneida shelled out at least $4.8 million to the companies from January to November in 2019, according to the district’s expense reports. Over $3.6 million went to Tech Trep, while Overture netted over $815,000. Harmony took in just under $400,000.

State dollars flowing to the district since the online school’s inception have increased from $4.7 million in 2013-14 to over $15.4 million in 2019-20.

Concerns over growth, oversight and finances

A 2017 Idaho Education News investigation found that Oneida had boosted its 2016-17 K-8 enrollment by 405 students.

Since then, the program has swelled by unprecedented numbers.

The school last year added 1,011 new students, a 42 percent hike from a year earlier. By comparison, Idaho’s largest district, 40,291-student West Ada, added 784 kids the same year. (Moore expressed disbelief that the district surpassed West Ada in terms of raw student growth.) Two years ago, IHLA gained 955 students, a 66 percent increase from the year before.

Questions of oversight have hovered over the school’s rapid expansion. A 2014 Utah State Office of Education audit uncovered lax oversight of Harmony’s students at several Utah charter schools. One Utah state senator accused the company of enrolling “ghost students” to boost profits, the Salt Lake Tribune reported.

Sorenson and Moore have acknowledged the company’s rocky past in Utah, but say Idaho’s process for enrolling online learners safeguards against the possibility of numbers manipulation.

The state requires recruited students to produce a birth certificate and residence address. Once a student is plugged into the system, they receive an ID number that stays with them at whatever public school they enroll in.

Sorenson said she’s confident that the process safeguards against faux students entering the system.

“I just don’t know how you could have a ghost student with the way the state counts kids,” Moore said.

Concerns over student performance

Students in Idaho’s virtual schools struggle academically.

Three years in, IHLA is no exception.

The latest Idaho Standards Achievement Test scores show that the students trailed their district and statewide peers in every subject.

  • Fewer than 25 percent of IHLA students reached proficiency in math. The district average was 34.6 percent. The state average: 45.1 percent.
  • Just over 42 percent of IHLA students scored proficient in ELA, compared to the district’s 49.2 percent and the state’s 55.6 percent.
  • Just under 51 percent of IHLA students reached proficiency in science, nearly nine percentage points below the district’s 59.9 percent and the state’s 59.6 percent.

The latest Idaho Reading Indicator scores revealed similar gaps, with 53.3 percent of the school’s K-3 students reading on grade level last spring. The district tallied 59.6 percent, and the state number came in at 70.4 percent.

Like advocates and educators at other virtual schools, Sorenson said more than scores should factor into measuring a school’s effectiveness. Idaho’s online schools serve a variety of unique and at-risk students:

  • Suspended or pregnant teens.
  • Students who are bullied or who learn at varying rates.
  • Students pursuing early careers in sports, music or the arts.

“Demographics say a lot,” said Sorenson, adding that the schools incoming homeschoolers aren’t as familiar with state testing procedures as kids in brick-and-mortar schools.

The resources families receive through digital vendors — a certified teacher, special education services, state testing helps — put the students on a better academic path than they would otherwise be, Sorenson said. “These are tremendous resources.”

Despite the low scores, the added resources are enough for Moore to justify the school’s continued growth.

“I anticipate another 500 kids to enroll by next year,” he said, adding that the three online vendors have a combined target of 800 kids.

Devin Bodkin

About Devin Bodkin

Reporter Devin Bodkin covers education issues in East Idaho. He is a former high school English teacher who specializes in stories about charter schools and educating students who live in poverty. Devin co-hosts "Beyond the Books" online news segments in conjunction with EastIdahoNews.com. He is a 2019 Solutions Journalism Network fellow. Follow Devin on Twitter @dsbodkin. He can be reached by email at dbodkin@idahoednews.org.

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