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Virtual charter school seeks more funding, permanent status

The leader of one of the state’s two virtual charter schools asked legislators Tuesday to release his school from pilot status and provide more funding.

North Carolina Connections Academy is a K-11 online school that is part of a four-year pilot program that ends next year. Superintendent Nathan Currie said in a presentation to the joint legislative education oversight committee meeting that its pilot status was becoming an impediment to success. 

“We’re still labeled as a pilot status. Well, there’s a lot of barriers to that,” he told legislators, adding later, “We’re starting to see some impacts on student recruitment and teacher induction.” 

He said some teachers and students are hesitant to come to the school since its unclear whether or not it will continue beyond next year. 

He also said his school receives only 60 cents for every dollar a traditional public school receives, but the costs of the virtual school are not necessarily less than traditional schools. He said the school provides technology and an internet subsidy to certain students who can not afford it. In his presentation, he asked that his school receive funding similar to that of traditional public schools. 

Joel Medley, head of the state’s other K-12 virtual charter school, North Carolina Virtual Academy, gave an abbreviated presentation due to time. He said the school has achieved the benchmarks expected of any regular charter school. The committee plans for both schools to return before it in the near future for a more full discussion. 

Medley said the State Board of Education’s 10 year renewal policy for charter schools requires schools to be fiscally sound, substantially compliant, and have academics comparable to a district near the school. He said the Virtual Academy passes all three benchmarks. Medley compared his school to the Durham School District which he said is similar in demographics. Hs said his school compares favorably. 

Chart courtesy of North Carolina Virtual Academy.

He said when it came to math, there was work that needs to be done, but he said the school has a plan to address it. 

Both Virtual Charter Schools are D schools on the school performance grade report, and neither has met academic growth. 

Currie said his school was only two-tenths of a point from reaching a C. He also noted that North Carolina Connections Academy’s reading and math end-of-grade scores increased from 2015-16 to 2016-17. Math went from an F to a D and reading from a C to a B. Overall grade level proficiency for that school increased slightly from 2016 to 2017, from 51.8 percent to 54.8. It went down for NC Virtual Academy, from 44.5 to 41.6. 

Medley said the population his schools serve is far more economically disadvantaged than the state as a whole. About 64 percent of the students North Carolina Virtual Academy serves are economically disadvantaged, compared to about 50 percent for the state and almost 61 percent for Durham. 

About 2,000 students each year are enrolled in both virtual charter schools, but the number of students actually participating at any particular time fluctuates due to withdrawals. Both schools previously had high withdrawal rates, reaching and sometimes exceeded the state’s 25 percent withdrawal limit. Last year, the General Assembly changed the rules on what could be considered in the withdrawal rates. For instance, it now allows schools not to count students who leave within 30 days as a withdrawal. After the change in definition, the schools are now down to withdrawal rates around 5 percent. 

The committee meeting was only informational, but Rep. Larry Pittman, R-Cabarrus, still took a few moments to support the notion of letting North Carolina Connections Academy, at least, continue beyond the end of  the pilot program. 

“I think we ought to give you some sort of extension so you can continue to work on this,” Pittman said. 

Sen. Joyce Waddell, D-Mecklenburg, however, asked if the benefit of the virtual charter school could not be brought into a traditional public school framework. 

“Could this program not be done in the traditional schools, brick and mortars, as a component of what’s going on?” she asked. 

Currie responded that a virtual school is completely different than just offering virtual classes, down to the culture, curriculum, and training of the teachers. 

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.