Online school posts unprecedented enrollment growth, again

MALAD — A low-performing virtual school has tallied the state’s most explosive enrollment growth — for the fourth straight year.

The Oneida School District’s Idaho Home Learning Academy added some 4,500 new students since last school year, the state’s latest fall enrollment numbers show.

The growth far exceeds that of any other district or charter in the state and shatters the remote Southeast Idaho district’s enrollment tally of over 1,000 new students last school year.

“It’s pretty crazy,” IHLA principal Terry Sorenson said, attributing the dizzying growth to an enrollment surge during COVID-19 disruptions to in-person learning.

Idaho’s overall K-12 enrollment is down during the pandemic, but some public online schools have posted big gains as families across the state search for remote learning options. IHLA led the state’s K-12 fall growth tallies by thousands, bringing its enrollment to some 7,800 kids since a year ago.

By comparison, the Boise Independent School District’s enrollment dropped from 25,105 to 23,628 since last school year. Idaho Virtual Academy, a virtual charter school, saw its enrollment jump from 1,736 to 3,652.

Sorenson and Oneida Superintendent Rich Moore insist that IHLA provides much-needed resources to home schoolers in search of learning resources they might not otherwise get. The need for these resources has only grown during the pandemic, they told EdNews.

Yet the tsunami of new students at the school continues to impact millions of state dollars and thousands of students — and raises questions about the benefits of remote learning altogether, especially for the state’s youngest learners.

“If kindergarteners think learning through a computer is how education is, how will that impact them moving forward?” Beth Oppenheimer, executive director of the Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children, recently told EdNews.

IHLA’s unprecedented growth

Since 2016 when it launched, IHLA has driven the Oneida School District’s enrollment up by some 7,000 students. About 800 kids attend the district’s brick-and-mortar schools in the sleepy Southeast Idaho town of Malad.

Here’s a year-by-year breakdown of the district’s unprecedented growth:

  • 2017-18: 1,182
  • 2018-19: 2,317
  • 2019-20: 3,328
  • 2020-21: 7,815

These numbers have established IHLA as one of East Idaho’s largest schools and helped Oneida surpass the growing Jefferson County Joint School District as one of the region’s four largest.

More kids, more money

The influx of learners has fueled an influx of state funding, though IHLA’s students don’t walk its halls because they learn remotely from various parts of Idaho.

The school accounted for some $15.4 million earmarked for the district in 2019-20 alone. That number could jump by another $20 million with this school year’s enrollment surge.

For perspective, $20 million is nearly the equivalent the Middleton School District’s annual general fund budget.

Millions of those dollars go back into maintaining IHLA’s online program, from paying teachers — including the more than 230 the school has hired to absorb this year’s influx — to reimbursing families for curriculum purchased through the school’s various for-profit online companies.

These companies partner with the school to recruit kids from across the state and provide families with remote coursework.  Moore anticipates payments up to around $16 million to go to the companies by the school year’s end.

Click here for more on how online school works at IHLA and across Idaho.

Is it good for students?

Many of Idaho’s online schools, including IHLA, typically struggle academically in all grade levels.

Online learning “is just not the same” as in-person learning, said Oppenheimer, who acknowledged difficulties in teaching young kids to read through a computer screen.

Substituting online kindergarten for the critical first year of formal education may have particular consequences for decades, the Hechinger Report reported last week.

And most of IHLA’s K-10 students are early learners. At least 4,300 of its students are enrolled in the fourth grade or under, state numbers show.

Moore and Sorenson have defended their district’s online program for years by pointing to the benefits of things like a certified remote teacher and standards-aligned coursework IHLA provides for students.

Sorenson has also acknowledged the school’s lower-than-state-average standardized test scores. A look at IHLA’s most recent Idaho Standards Achievement Test scores:

  • 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 school’s 2019-20 fall 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.

Sorensen pointed to a big jump on this year’s fall Idaho Reading Indicator.  IHLA’s average score came in at a 64.7 percent proficiency rate — nearly 15 percentage points higher than the state average of 49.6 percent.

“I was very pleased with that,” Sorenson said.

Oppenheimer told EdNews last month that she worries some online parents may be tempted to help students on the test. And that if scores rise because of it, state leaders might get the wrong impression about online learning’s impacts on kids.

The state allows remote learners to take the test virtually, Sorenson acknowledged, but she said her school safeguards against allowing parents to help. “Parents are allowed to help students log onto the computer and then they are asked to leave the room or sit in the back of the room where teachers can see they are not assisting student.”

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. He is a 2019 Solutions Journalism Network fellow and the Idaho Press Club's 2019 print reporter of the year. Follow Devin on Twitter @dsbodkin. He can be reached by email at dbodkin@idahoednews.org.

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