Nearly 2,500 students have left NC's online charter schools: Why did they leave? Where did they go?
Posted August 30
Durham, N.C. — Jennifer Murray remembers the first time she heard about virtual charter schools. The Wendell mother was at a ballet fundraiser with her teenage daughter Macy when a woman sitting nearby suggested they check out North Carolina Connections Academy, one of the state's two new virtual charter schools. The classes were online and flexible and would allow Macy to keep up with her demanding ballet schedule.
Murray was intrigued.
"I went online and started demoing the options they had," Murray said. "Academics are very important to our family."
Macy, now 15, recently finished her second year with Connections Academy. The online public school has allowed her to take intensive dance lessons at the Raleigh School of Ballet during the day and complete schoolwork online, mostly on her own schedule. This past March, she was able to take classes in the car on the way to a ballet competition, her mother recalled.
"The school environment has been so wonderful for us because we're driving to Philadelphia and my hotspot's on and she's in class," Murray said. "I mean, you don't have to miss a beat with this. You don't have to get behind. She can work on Saturday and Sunday if she has a tight rehearsal schedule."
Macy is one of more than 4,400 students across North Carolina who enrolled this past year in the state's two virtual charter schools – Connections Academy and North Carolina Virtual Academy. Both are based in Durham but serve students across the state.
Since the schools launched two years ago, they have enjoyed strong support from families, often receiving high marks on parent satisfaction surveys. But they have also struggled with low performance grades and high withdrawal rates.
Their first year, the schools enrolled nearly 3,900 students combined. By the end of the year, more than 1,200 students – more than 30 percent – left to seek education elsewhere, prompting one State Board of Education member to warn, "We need to monitor this closely." This past year, the schools enrolled more than 4,400 students and lost nearly 1,200, or about 27 percent.
Tracking how many students leave the schools has been a complex and controversial topic since lawmakers granted the schools four-year pilot programs beginning in 2015. Virtual charter school leaders say their withdrawal numbers appear inflated because of the unique students they serve, some of whom only enroll for a brief time. Last year, lawmakers decided to allow the schools to stop counting certain students who leave, including those who withdraw within 30 days. The change allowed the schools to report drastically lower withdrawal rates of 5 percent each.
While the schools' overall enrollment and withdrawal numbers are publicly reported, not much is known about why students leave. In public meetings and interviews with WRAL News, leaders at both schools often rely on anecdotes to explain why students depart, typically sharing stories of children undergoing cancer treatments or other personal struggles who need to take online courses for a short time before returning to their previous schools.
But a detailed breakdown of specific reasons why students leave the online schools has never been reported – until now.
Why are students withdrawing?
WRAL News filed public records requests with Connections Academy, Virtual Academy and the state Office of Charter Schools to find out specific reasons students and families have given for leaving the two virtual charter schools. The records revealed more than 100 responses, ranging from families who were frustrated or unhappy with the schools to those who enjoyed the online environment but left for personal reasons.
Some of the most detailed answers came from parents who responded to a survey commissioned by the state Office of Charter Schools, which asked, "If your child was enrolled for less than nine months, please explain why." WRAL News shared the parents' responses with the leaders of the two virtual charter schools, who said they had never seen the feedback.
"Thanks for sharing this," said Joel Medley, Virtual Academy's head of school. "We have not been privy to this information from the state."
If the state could share the information in the future, "that would be ideal for transparency," Medley said. "If there are things that parents are telling them that we need to improve, then how can we do so if that information is not shared with us?"
Among the parents' responses were complaints about the online classes being too easy, too rigorous or not flexible enough. Some families said they had problems communicating with teachers and felt frustrated or confused by the online programs. The records WRAL News reviewed did not reveal parents' or students' names but did show which school and grade the students were enrolled in.
"There was not much support, the teachers did not seem very engaging. When my daughter emailed questions, she was not responded to," the parent of a fifth-grader wrote. "She was basically not getting much of an education other than what she was teaching herself."
"My daughter was frustrated by the teacher turnover, inconsistent grading procedures, and limited choice of courses offered," the parent of a 10th-grader shared. "She did not feel like she could get helpful one on one assistance, especially in Math. We constantly asked for tutors, but were never given an option."
Others left for reasons outside the schools' control.
"We entered about a month after the opening and did our best to catch up ... It proved to be overwhelming," the parent of a seventh-grader wrote. "Overall, it was not the fault of this school. I was actually quite impressed with the curriculum and most of the teachers."
"We moved," another parent wrote.
Some parents said they struggled to serve as learning coaches for their children. Both virtual charter schools require an adult, typically a parent, to help monitor their children's schoolwork and communicate with teachers.
"The school ended up being a lot more work for the coach than we expected. In my opinion the role of coach was really teacher," the parent of a seventh-grader shared.
"Did not workout with me as a full-time worker. Did not have anyone to help me as a coach for my child. If could have found someone would have continued," the parent of an eighth-grader wrote.
Some students craved more social interaction and wanted to be in a traditional school setting. The parents of two elementary school students said they noticed a change when their children were in the online school environment.
"We found that the lack of social interaction between other students had a negative impact on our children's behavior at home. They began to exhibit symptoms of depression among other things," the parents wrote. "We put them back in a traditional brick and mortar school and they had a complete turnaround in behavior and mood."
Others needed more structure.
"Had problems with her attentiveness and sleeping late," the parent of a kindergartner wrote. "She needed the structure of a planned schedule and someone who she could not push-over, like she did her mom."
While stories like those can help explain why some parents pull their children out of the schools, virtual charter school leaders warn against drawing conclusions from their responses.
"Context is important in any situation, and the anonymity removes any semblance of context," Medley told WRAL News by email. "We, obviously, cannot respond to situations that we cannot identify (and could not speak to them if we could identify due to FERPA); so, unfortunately, this one-sided kind of survey does not reflect all of the facts."
He pointed to Virtual Academy's parent satisfaction scores – 75 percent of parents said they were satisfied and 80 percent said they planned to return – which are "quite high for a school only in its second year," he said.
Connections Academy reported even higher satisfaction results, with a recent survey showing 91 percent of parents would recommend the school to others, according to Connections' Superintendent Nathan Currie. He shared three responses from the survey, which was conducted by an outside company:
"I love the curriculum. The teachers are very dedicated, they are committed to keep the communication line open between the Learning Coach and child. I love the fact it offers free tuition. I also love that fact that my children are able to interact with other kids from live lessons. I love the fact the program is very flexible." – Melissa Boone
"What I love about NCCA is that every staff member and teacher is concerned about my son's health and about him succeeding. I'm so impressed with everything this year. I'm so grateful." – Royanna Williams
"…If we have a horse competition in another state, we are able to travel and still have school and compete. If our student has a special sports clinic during the week and needs to miss her daily classes, she can make that day up on the weekend or throughout the week. The stress relief of this flexibility on our family and her goals is amazing." – Sandie Dennis
Medley also shared positive feedback he received recently. A Virtual Academy parent, whose name was redacted, emailed Medley to explain why their daughter was withdrawing from the school.
"...Our daughter's health has improved and she wishes to return to her peer group," the parent wrote. "I wanted to send a note to thank you and your teachers for the past year we had with NCVA ... I must say that our experience with NCVA was wonderful and it more than fulfilled our needs both academically and as a family."
While that parent took time to explain why their child was leaving, not every parent does. Records WRAL News reviewed showed that many families provide vague reasons or no reasons at all for withdrawing their children, leaving the schools with incomplete data to explain why students are no longer enrolled.
'No answer given'
Connections Academy and Virtual Academy each enroll about 2,000 students a year and lose anywhere from 550 to 650 annually, according to state records. Students who drop out or are expelled are not considered withdrawals.
Both schools track why students leave, typically through surveys or phone calls with parents, but the specific reasons are not reported publicly. WRAL News asked both schools to provide explanations of why students withdrew last school year.
"This is going to take some time to try and piece it all together," said Medley, who explained that families can report multiple reasons for leaving.
Virtual Academy's research found that 84 percent of the families who left provided some kind of feedback, but one of the most common responses was, "No answer given."
"Sometimes we just cannot get a family to tell us why they're leaving," Medley said. "It's an opportunity for us to learn, but unfortunately, we can't always get that."
Virtual Academy: Top 10 reasons families gave for leaving
- No answer given
- Accepted into another school that was family's first choice
- Too much of a time commitment for the student's learning coach
- Student no longer motivated to be in the virtual setting
- Learning coach no longer available due to family circumstance changes
- Program too rigorous
- Desire for more socialization opportunities
- Moved out of state
- Health issues in the family necessitating a move
- Too much active instruction
At Connections Academy, school officials sent voluntary questionnaires to students who withdrew and received responses from about 25 percent. The most common answer students and their families selected for leaving was, "Other."
The low response rate was mostly due to no-shows – students who enrolled in the school but never showed up, according to Currie.
"These are families that we have tried to contact them and they didn't show, and there's no response from those families," he said.
Connections Academy: Top 10 reasons families gave for leaving
- The program/schedule is not flexible enough
- My student wants to return to a traditional school setting for socialization reasons.
- My student wants to return to a traditional school setting for other (non-socialization related) reasons
- The program takes too much of the student's time
- The transition to a virtual school was too difficult
- There was not enough help/guidance setting us up in the school
- The program takes too much of the learning coach's time
- The curriculum is too hard
- We are no longer able to provide a learning coach to assist our students
Currie was not able to provide an exact number of how many students were no-shows but said they were counted among the students enrolled fewer than 30 days. Of the 337 students who left in the first five months last school year, 184 students, or 55 percent, were enrolled less than a month.
"It's really challenging for us because we want to be notified, but many families, especially if it's a homeschool family, they don't really understand the process of how the schools work about records and keeping kids on the books," Currie said. "So, many times they will just not show up or go, 'We're going to homeschool.' And then we're not notified until we reach out to see what happened."
Homeschool is a common next step for students leaving virtual charter schools in North Carolina. Data provided by Connections Academy showed that 41.5 percent of students who left went to a homeschool environment. The most popular destination was traditional public school, with 42.4 percent of Connections' students heading there.
At Virtual Academy, 25 percent of students who left went to homeschools. The majority – 64 percent – went to traditional public schools.
'Am I taking a big risk with my child's future?'
When Connections Academy and Virtual Academy opened in 2015, supporters praised them as the newest options in North Carolina's growing school-choice movement. The free online public schools could cater to students in special situations, including athletes who traveled extensively, children with health or behavioral issues or those who previously homeschooled but wanted to take public school classes online.
The flexibility of the online schooling is what inspired Jennifer Murray to enroll her daughter Macy in Connections Academy in 2015, but she did have some concerns about the brand new school.
"Anytime something's new and anytime it's innovative, you feel a little bit scared and you feel like, am I taking a big risk with my child's future?" Murray said.
Two years later, her daughter has thrived at Connections Academy.
"She's made As and Bs and cares about her grades," Murray said. "We would not continue to participate if I did not feel that she was receiving a supportive and appropriate academic life."
While Murray's daughter has excelled, her story is not the norm. School performance records show Connections Academy and Virtual Academy have struggled academically. For the 2015-16 school year, both schools received overall performance grades of D and each received an F in math and a C in reading. School leaders acknowledge the low grades but ask for patience as they try to improve.
"We've gotta build a culture. We've gotta build an image. We've gotta build a brand," said Currie, noting that Connections Academy's scores reflected "years of work that was done elsewhere."
"When we got our test scores back, it was baseline data for us," he added. "We knew kids came to us not strong in math."
At Virtual Academy, a common misconception is that the school enrolls only high-performing students, according to Medley.
"Everybody assumes that we have the best of the best. It's not the case," Medley said, noting that 66 percent of his students receive free and reduced lunch and that the school enrolls a slightly higher than average percentage of special education students.
"Forty percent of our third-graders came to us in the lowest quartile in the state," Medley added. "Often at the high school level, families (are) choosing us as a last-ditch effort for their kid to graduate."
North Carolina's virtual charter schools are not alone in their academic struggles. A 2015 study by Stanford University offered a snapshot of the country's 200 online charter schools and the 200,000 students they serve. The study found that the majority of online charter school students in the U.S. had far weaker academic growth in both math and reading compared to their traditional public school peers.
However, virtual charter school leaders point to another study, published in the the Journal of Online Learning Research, which found the following:
- Students who transfer into a virtual charter school experience academic regression in the first year.
- Students who remained enrolled in the virtual charter school beyond a second year experienced an academic recovery.
- Students remaining with the virtual charter school three years experienced a complete academic recovery and saw significant improvement in years four and five. The value-add in years four and five outpaced that of their matched peers.
'This is the hardest job I've ever had as a teacher'
When Harnett County teacher Lisa Malkiewicz heard about North Carolina's new virtual charter schools, she was interested – not only for her three children, but for herself. In August 2015, she took a job as an eighth grade language arts teacher at Virtual Academy and spent the first year studying whether it would be a good fit for her own children.
"I wanted to know what the curriculum was like ... I'm one of those parents that, I want to see, what's it really going to be like? What's it really going to do?" she said. "Because I didn't want it to be that they were just sitting at home and be done with their work in one hour ... I wanted a rigorous curriculum."
Her first year at Virtual Academy, "Ms. Mac," as she's known, had to make major adjustments to her teaching style.
"I was that crazy teacher who would stand up on desks," she said, recalling her time in Harnett County Schools. "When we covered World War I, we actually had trench warfare paper ball fights in my classroom."
With her new students staring at her through a screen, she had to find other ways to keep their attention and make learning memorable. While she lost the ability to scale desks and host paper ball fights, she gained more flexibility for herself as a teacher and enjoyed being able to work from home.
When her washing machine broke and spilled water all over her floor, she continued teaching her classes online while waiting for the repair company to show up at her home. When she had a major surgery and needed eight weeks to recover, she continued working from her bed less than a week later so her students wouldn't need a substitute teacher.
Both virtual charter schools allow teachers to work from home. Some work in the schools' Durham-based offices a few days a week or when they are in training. Even with the flexible working conditions, Malkiewicz says the job is demanding.
"This is the hardest job I've ever had as a teacher," she said. "You work a lot, but it's rewarding in a lot of ways. So, it makes up for it. Will I ever go back to brick and mortar? Probably never, because I do enjoy the flexibility."
After teaching at Virtual Academy for a year and examining its curriculum, Malkiewicz decided to enroll her three children last year. The transition was tricky in the beginning as her children tried to settle into a routine, including her eighth-grade son who was enrolled in her class.
Now that they are more familiar with the online school environment, each child knows what's expected. If they forget or fall behind, Malkiewicz is there as their mother, learning coach and sometimes teacher to keep them in line.
"I'm like, um, excuse me, aren't you supposed to be in social studies class? Get upstairs right now," Malkiewicz said. "They will get distracted. You have to kind of stay on them so they know what they have to do."
In her experience, one of the most common reasons students leave Virtual Academy is lack of socialization.
"(Students say), 'I’m not around people enough. I have to be around people. I’m depressed because I’m not talking to anybody,'" Malkiewicz said. "But those students haven’t tried to reach out and go to clubs. They don’t show up at outings."
As she begins her third year teaching at Virtual Academy, Malkiewicz says she occasionally gets questions from parents who are confused about how the online school works. Some wonder, for example, why their children have to take state tests.
Virtual Academy's head of school says he fields similar questions.
"The thing that I keep saying over and over and over is we are a public school," Medley said. "I still get phone calls from families every now and then asking, 'How much does this cost?' So there are folks out there that just don't understand because the model is so new."
Those parents aren't the only ones with questions. The newness of North Carolina's virtual charter school program has shown that some people, including those tasked with monitoring the schools, are confused or unaware about how the online environment works and how student withdrawals are calculated.
'I don't think we have a clue'
In February, leaders of Connections Academy and Virtual Academy stood before the state's Charter Schools Advisory Board in Raleigh. The 11-member panel, charged with ensuring "the existence of high quality charter schools in North Carolina," wanted an update about how the two schools were performing and why students were leaving. But many of their questions focused on the basics of how the schools work.
Among their questions and comments:
"Where are you located?"
"What does a day for a student look like?"
"Do they take tests online? Or, what do they do?"
"I don't think we have a clue how the funding stream works for these students. I'm not sure how that's being done."
"Is there an hour requirement (for students to do classwork) per week?"
Attempts to reach board Chairman Alex Quigley for comment were unsuccessful.
During the meeting, board members also expressed confusion about how student withdrawals are calculated and why some students who leave are allowed to be excluded from the withdrawal rate. Connections Academy's superintendent attempted to explain.
"There's a lot of myths with virtual schools that we hear all the time, and that's usually – we hear about withdrawals. You know, what does that mean?" Currie told the panel. "Sometimes that connotation is the withdrawals are people that are unhappy or dissatisfied ... And I would certainly make the point that that's not what withdrawal really means for us."
"What we do see a lot of times is kids come to us with medical conditions," Currie continued. "They do come to us for a finite period of time to go through their treatments."
Medley, Virtual Academy's head of school, shared a similar story with WRAL News in April when discussing students at his school.
"We have some students right now who are going through some pretty serious cancer treatments," he explained. "This affords them the opportunity that, they're in the hospital, they're doing their school work."
While the schools do enroll students with medical problems, records WRAL News reviewed showed that health issues are not a common reason students cite when withdrawing. Currie says that may be because families don't want to share that information and instead cite other reasons for leaving.
"You do as much as you can to dive into it, but in many cases it becomes so personal with them that you may not know totally," he said. "I don't think there's ever going to be a perfect way to capture that ... (But) I'm open to sitting at the table to start crafting better ways of capturing certain data, including the withdrawals."
Medley said he is satisfied with the way his school tracks students who leave.
"I'm quite pleased with what we're doing," he said. "I guess the bigger question from me is, what is the withdrawal rate supposed to indicate? I don't know the answer to that. If you compare us to brick and mortar schools, our withdrawal rate does appear high. But if you compare us to other virtual models, it is not. That's where the true comparison needs to be."
In February, Medley shared data with the Charter Schools Advisory Board showing that virtual schools in Florida and Virginia had higher rates of students leaving or not completing courses.
'A little pushback' may be necessary
During the first year of their pilot programs, Connections Academy lost 31 percent of its students and Virtual Academy lost 25 percent, putting them at or above the state's 25 percent cap on withdrawals for the two virtual charter schools. The news prompted State Board of Education member Becky Taylor to issue a warning to her fellow board members last fall.
"I really think we need to monitor this closely," she said. "The last thing we want is to be in the newspaper like some other states have been. We want to have good articles in the end ... We need to be on our toes."
Virtual charter school leaders urged patience and said the way withdrawals were calculated was not fair because of the unique student population they served. Last year, state lawmakers tweaked the law to allow the schools to exclude counting the following students:
- Finite enrollees – students who express their intent, prior to enrollment, that they plan to withdraw at a certain time (for example, a student who plans to take online courses while undergoing chemotherapy)
- Students who fail to participate in classes
- Students who leave the state
- Students who leave for a family, personal or medical reason
- Students who leave within the first 30 days they are enrolled
The changes resulted in drastic improvements in the schools' withdrawal rates, dropping from 31 percent at Connections Academy and 25 percent at Virtual Academy to 5 percent at both schools. Had the changes in legislation not been made, the schools' withdrawal rates would have been 17 percent for Connections and 21 percent for Virtual – still an improvement over the previous year's numbers, but much higher than the 5 percent rates they were able to report.
At the time, then-State Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson said she worried the inconsistent methods used to measure withdrawals would negatively impact the legitimacy of the virtual charter school program in North Carolina.
This past May, leaders in the state Office of Charter Schools told WRAL News that more should be done to track why students leave the two virtual charter schools, especially students who enroll for short periods of time.
"We need to firmly get a hold of finite (enrollments), what that looks like," said Deanna Townsend-Smith, assistant director of the state Office of Charter Schools. "I think what it's going to take is some more definition around a report to us each month. They're going to need to add an appropriate explanation as to why a child withdrew, and if there's not a plausible response, it's going to be on us to do a little pushback to the schools and get some additional information."
WRAL News asked both virtual charter schools to provide reasons why students enrolled for finite periods of time. Connections Academy was not able to provide any reasons. The school keeps a written record of students who intend to enroll for a short time, "however, there is nothing in the (law) that obligates a family to explain the reasons for finite enrollment or withdrawing," a Connections Academy spokeswoman told WRAL News by email.
Virtual Academy, however, does track reasons students enroll for short periods. The first five months of last school year, 416 students withdrew from the school overall. Of those, 126 students – or 30 percent – were deemed finite enrollees. They cited the following reasons for leaving:
Virtual Academy: Reasons students gave for enrolling for finite periods of time
- 32 percent – Academic concerns from previous school (Virtual Academy may be able to fix those issues)
- 29 percent – Other
- 16 percent – Health reasons
- 15 percent – Uncertainty
- 3 percent – Family changes
- 3 percent – Relocation
- 2 percent – Sports
'I hope to God it doesn't go away'
As Connections Academy and Virtual Academy begin their third year, the schools' leaders ask for patience as they work to increase their test scores and decrease withdrawals. They are hopeful their schools will continue past their four-year pilot programs and thrive in a state with growing school-choice options. They point to strong support from students and families and long waiting lists showing that there is a need for the online schools in the state.
"There is a demand. Folks want to come here," Medley said.
The schools have support from top education leaders, including new U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, a professed school-choice supporter. In an interview with media outlet Axios earlier this year, DeVos said she expects "there will be more virtual schools" in the U.S.
"I expect there will be more schools of any kind that haven't even been invented yet," she said.
The virtual charter schools also have support from parents like Aisha Bakkar, who enrolled her daughters – Abby, 10, and Amelia, 8 – in Connections Academy after being frustrated with overcrowded classrooms and students misbehaving in her daughters' Johnston County school. She found out about virtual charter schools through a Google search.
"I'm like, oh, this is free? It must not be good then, but we'll try it out just to start," Bakkar said. "But it has been fantastic. I know this is just a trial for North Carolina, but I hope to God it doesn't go away, because I personally can't imagine doing anything else."
Jennifer and Macy Murray hope it doesn't go away either.
Macy, who dreams of being a professional ballet dancer, says Connections Academy gave her the flexibility to take more dance classes while keeping up with her schoolwork.
"It has allowed me to pursue my dreams," she said.
Macy plans to continue pursuing those dreams at a different school this year. She has withdrawn from Connections Academy and enrolled in Crossroads FLEX High School in Cary for her 10th grade year. The school serves non-traditional students who "require considerable amounts of time during regular school hours to support their pursuit."
"If it were not for this unique high school option in Wake County, she would have remained enrolled with (Connections Academy)," Jennifer Murray said.
Despite being one of the latest families to withdraw, Jennifer Murray says she is glad they took a chance on the new virtual charter school.
"I am very proud to participate as a family in something that is innovative and cutting edge," she said. "We are so grateful for the various virtual school options, and we think virtual options are simply great."