Backers of school choice have a new ally in the U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. At her confirmation hearing before a Senate committee earlier this year, DeVos presented herself as a friend of parents seeking alternatives to local public schools.
“Parents no longer believe that a one-size-fits-all model of learning meets the needs, need, of every child — and they know other options exist," DeVos said. "Whether magnet, virtual, charter, home, faith-based or any other combination.”
That emphasis on “virtual, charter and home” options brought DeVos some controversy recently when she overstated the graduation rates at online charter schools. Official graduation data from Oregon's Department of Education suggest virtual schools here tend to struggle getting students to earn diplomas.
Students enroll in online schools for lots of reasons. But mostly, it’s that regular school isn’t working for them.
Skylar Isaacs is a junior at the Oregon Virtual Academy, an online charter school based in Coos Bay, though it draws students from all over the state.
He switched to online learning in elementary school.
“He actually got to a point where he was being disruptive in classes and stuff because he wasn’t getting attention from a teacher," said his father, Steven Isaacs. "And I’m not here to judge teachers.”
That was 2009, and the decline in state income tax collections had pummeled Oregon school budgets. Teachers were getting laid off. Those who were left had bigger classes. Skylar was struggling through third grade as his father looked for ways to improve things.
“We were trying as a family to work with them to see what we could do to make this work for him," Isaacs said. "We didn’t even go looking. It was the principal at the school that came to us, and first suggested virtual schools.”
Starting in fourth grade, Skylar has been a student at the Oregon Virtual Academy. His classroom is a laptop at one end of the dining room table. His dad typically sits at the other end.
Oregon has 12 other schools like the Virtual Academy: charter schools that rely primarily — sometimes almost exclusively — on an online interface to deliver content and skills to students through the 12th grade. As public charter schools, they answer to their own school boards and are overseen by the local school district board.
They also draw from the same limited state education budget as brick-and-mortar schools. Since money follows kids, there’s competition for students — and that can cause tension. Steven Isaacs felt that acutely as school districts struggled with shrinking budgets in 2009.
“We were hit with all this resistance," he said. "From the superintendent of the school district, from teachers and administrators. I ended up in Salem. I talked with a senator. Everything.”
Isaacs declined to mention the name of the school district, out of respect for the officials there now.
Eight years later, President Donald Trump's administration is much more supportive of school options, such as online schools. But the record of such schools is spotty.
Just 48 percent of students at Oregon’s online charters graduated on time last year. That’s nearly 30 points below a state average, which is among the worst in the country. Skylar’s school, the Virtual Academy, had a 28 percent graduation rate last year.
The graduation rate is a lot better at the state’s largest online charter, Oregon Connections Academy. At nearly 62 percent, it's better than most of the virtual schools, but well below the state average.
Allison Galvin, the executive director of Oregon Connections Academy, noted that the school has steadily improved its high school graduation rate. But, she said, the kids who don't earn diplomas by the end of senior year have something in common:
“Of those that didn’t graduate, 95 percent of them came to us credit-deficient," she said.
Galvin could be any high school principal pointing out that students who fall behind tend to drop out.
“Formerly, there was no place for that student to go, other than a GED or alternative school, and maybe that’s not right for that student,” Galvin said.
Before 15-year-old Josephine Relli enrolled as a sophomore at Oregon Connections Academy, she was falling behind as a freshman at Beaverton High School. She was trying to balance school with a budding music career and school was losing.
“We were in the midst of recording the album and I was missing a lot of days," Josephine said. "I think it got to the point where I was missing a little too much.”
Today, her classroom is the family basement. Textbooks and a computer share space with a half-dozen guitars and basses, a drum kit and her mom’s cello.
Online high school is more flexible, but requires students to be more responsible. They interact with teachers mostly through an online interface, or sometimes by email or cell phone. Parents — called “coaches” — are expected to supervise.
Josephine logs in, and opens her Connections Academy dashboard to see how she's doing. She's caught up in French, her favorite class. But she’s behind in a few others. At least she knows why.
“I tend to pick and choose some things, and then I’ll get behind in one class, and it’s like ‘Oh, I have to do that now,’” she said with a laugh.
Recently, she was behind in biology, one of her tougher classes, but said she'd take her unit test soon and be almost caught up.
She misses social aspects of high school, such as being part of musical theater and seeing friends.
Virtual Academy student Skylar Isaacs said he has friends, but admits he’s been in virtual school for so long that he doesn’t always know what he’s missing. He’s looking forward to college to study the creative digital arts.
“Storytelling, particularly interactive story telling, creating worlds and characters and that sort of thing — that’s the industry I’d like to go into," he said. "But at the same time, I have a big inclination toward programming and digital art, as well.”
The parents of both Skylar and Josephine say the teenagers will graduate on time, putting them in a minority of online charter high schoolers.
The blend of flexibility and responsibility is working for them. Skylar has time to teach kids robotics, when he’s not studying at the dining room table.
Josephine Relli also plans to go to college, and not necessarily to study music. She's finding ways that school and music work together for her. One of her favorite songs on her now-finished album is called “Odds Of Us.” It started as an Oregon Connections Academy assignment about Homer’s classic, "The Odyssey."