Georgia’s largest online school paid millions, earns a D

Data specialist Jennifer Peebles contributed to this article

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.

The charter school’s leaders say they face unique challenges, with large numbers of students already behind when they enroll. They have plans to improve results but also claim the state’s grading methods are unfair and inaccurate. However, the state disagrees, and if the academy cannot show improvement soon, the commission that chartered the school could shut it down.

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.

Parents such as Dione Ansah praise the academy as an attractive alternative to regular schools. The DeKalb County resident chose it for her two daughters after she lost her job and could no longer afford private school. The neighborhood middle school had a reputation for violence, she said, adding, “there was no way I was going to send my kids there.”

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 State Charter Schools Commission, established in 2013 as an alternative to going through a school district to start a charter school, authorized the academy in 2014-15. The commission requires its schools to meet annual academic, financial and operational goals in three of the first four years of operation. The academy, which had operated for seven years under the Odyssey Charter School in Coweta County before obtaining its own charter, did not perform as required in its first year as an independent school. It scored one out of a possible 100 points on the academic portion of its evaluation, which assesses performance, mainly on standardized tests, compared to traditional schools. The results for 2015-16 are still being calculated.

This scoring system was not in place when the academy board signed the charter, and the school has not yet agreed to use it. But Bonnie Holliday, the commission’s executive director, said the school isn’t meeting goals under the original scoring system either.

“In the event standards are not met in future years,” she said, “the school is at risk for non-renewal in 2019.”

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.

Some parents and teachers say large class sizes make it difficult for teachers to deliver on the school's premise of harnessing technology to tailor teaching to each child.

“That’s all a lie; maybe in the younger years, as long as the teacher doesn’t have 70 kids,” said Sherry Horton. Her son did fine there, but her two daughters struggled in high school and couldn’t get their teachers’ attention, Horton said. She withdrew them. “If you put your kids in that school, know that you need to be on top of it every day with the teachers,” she said.

Arkin said class sizes are larger than he’d like, averaging 50 students. He said staffing is limited by tax money the school gets: more than $5,000 per student versus about $9,000 on average for Georgia schools.

As a state charter school, the academy gets no local property tax dollars. And the commission gives it less money per student than its other charter schools with school buildings to maintain, buses to fuel and lunches to cook.

Another problem mentioned by former teachers: attendance.

Jennifer Phillips, who taught seventh-grade English at the Academy several years ago, said a small proportion of her students showed up regularly for her online classes.

“Attendance was definitely a problem,” said Phillips, who left after one year, disillusioned.

Students can watch recordings of the classes later.

Some also said students whose parents weren't monitoring them could misbehave and be disruptive, doodling on a PowerPoint slide projected to the whole class instead of demonstrating how to solve the math problem on it.

Others said disciplinary problems were minor compared to brick-and-mortar schools. Kelly Brooks, a current teacher at the academy, left a traditional middle school job after tiring of misbehavior. “Boys and girls at that age, they’re just so distracted by each other,” she said. Now, when kids misbehave, she can turn off their ability to speak to or send messages to their classmates.

She said there are other advantages with the technology. Students feel emboldened to approach her because they can send her what they might think are dumb questions without embarrassing themselves in front of their peers.

“So as long as a student is interested, they’re going to get way more out of this than in a traditional classroom,” she said.

While some students exploit that opportunity, the school’s overall performance suggests most are like Keontavious Hankerson, a Burke County student who liked his teachers but felt uninspired by the online experience.

His mother, Mary Webb, enrolled him in the academy two years ago after county teachers “gave him real bad grades because he couldn’t focus.” His performance improved the first year, when his father’s work schedule allowed him to stay home during the day and push him. The next year his father’s schedule changed, and Keontavious was left home with only a slightly older relative. He floundered, Webb said. She was impressed that the school provided a computer, books and even printer ink, but said she will re-enroll him in the county this fall.

Keontavious, 15, said he missed being around other kids. “I didn’t like being at home,” he said. “It was hard for me to stay on the computer.”

School officials acknowledge the problem: Self-driven students or those with parents who can push them tend to do best while those with less support often struggle.

“We’re a school that really seeks to challenge high performers, and push them to new heights. At the same time we’re a dropout prevention and dropout recovery school,” Arkin said.

About four in five at the high school level and about half of the younger kids came to the academy after falling behind at their prior school, he said.

The school pays K12, a for-profit company, to provide technology and curriculum services, including $36.9 million in 2014-15.

Mary Gifford, a senior vice president at K12, said Georgia's growth measure is inaccurate at grading schools with extremes of high- and low-performers and high student turnover.

The state disagrees, saying their school grading model uses test scores in a way that is “reflective” of those characteristics.

Ryan Mahoney, chairman of the academy’s nonprofit board, dismissed the likelihood of being closed. The first year’s results were based mainly on the 2015 Georgia Milestones tests, which, he noted, were waived for low-performing traditional schools since the tests were new. If the commission sticks to its rules, he said, most of the agency’s 15 schools that were around in 2014-15 would have to close.

“I’m sure that’s not what the commission intended,” he said. He wants the commission to change the way it grades schools. He also wants more money for the school.

Holliday, the commission's executive director, said schools might get a reprieve if they meet standards by the fourth year of their contract, but added any underperforming school is at risk of closure "regardless of whether it's one school or 10 schools … any school operating under the assumption that commissioners will give them a pass for poor performance is mistaken."

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.”

He said charter schools like the academy prod traditional schools to improve and that it has the potential to be a “disruptive” force for education in the way Uber is changing transportation. While the academy “clearly is not at the highest standard that we would like,” he said, it is serving “many students at a very, very high level.”

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.”

Arkin said his turnaround plan includes more advisers to help new students adapt and a new data system in middle school to help teachers analyze student performance and adjust their teaching. And he said the school is getting better, noting that some of its scores on the state’s report card climbed closer to the state average in 2014-15 from the year before, when the academy operated under Odyssey.

Even parents who are critical said it would be a shame if the academy closed, since it provides an alternative in some parts of the state where there is no other.

Susan Rachel's daughter spent a year in the academy. Now, Rachel, from the Augusta area, is complaining about class sizes, harried teachers, students slipping profanity onto the electronic blackboard and, ultimately, a model of education that didn't seem to be all that different from traditional public school. She described it as "the factory model in your living room, spitting out kids as fast as you can enroll them."

But don’t close the academy, she said. Parents need an alternative: “I mean, it’s better than nothing.”

About the Author

Editors' Picks