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National e-school figure to test new approach to online learning here in Ohio

July 21, 2018

National e-school figure to test new approach to online learning here in Ohio

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Ron Packard wants to do a better job with e-schools this time around.

Packard, the founder and former CEO of e-school operator K12 Inc., says he made a few mistakes with his old company. Though K12 has made money for investors, the nation’s largest operator of online schools has also been heavily criticized nationally for both its business practices and spotty academic results.

So Packard wants to take a new approach as operator of the Ohio Distance and Electronic Learning Academy (OhDELA), his newly-acquired, but academically-struggling, online charter school here in Ohio.

He’s planning several changes to improve OhDELA’s F and D grades on state report cards – many fitting a growing national consensus that online schools across the country need to overhaul how they work.

Among them:

-       Requiring more in-person meetings between students and teachers, rather than leaving students mostly on their own to take classes their classes online and from home.

“We’re trying to create the next generation model, which will be a more service-intensive design to get kids engaged in the process and have more face-to-face time,” he said.

-       Avoiding an old pattern of K12 and other large e-schools – advertising to recruit thousands of students, regardless of whether online classes suit them.

“We’re not going to go crazy on the advertising,” he said.

-       Making sure that the school makes extra efforts to engage students who are not self-motivated or who don’t have lots of parental oversight.

-       And he wants a fix from the Ohio legislature for a major issue with online charter schools – that any student can enroll in e-schools, then stay even without participating much in classes.

“We’re not trying to be huge,” he said. “I want to make sure we do it right.”

K12 Inc. started in 1999 and quickly spread across the country under Packard with dozens of online schools – including Ohio Virtual Academy, now Ohio’s largest e-school – using K12′s online learning system to deliver classes to students. At its peak, the publicly-traded K12 was taking in about $1 billion a year in revenue.

But accusations of inflated attendance (leading to inflated state payments) arose in other states, as well as complaints about weak academic results as the school added students by the thousands.

In 2011, stories in both the Washington Post and New York Times raised caution about the company.

The New York Times called K12 “a company that tries to squeeze profits from public school dollars by raising enrollment, increasing teacher workload and lowering standards.”

Packard, who had been paid as much as $5 million a year by K12, left the company in 2014. He then focused on building a new, for-profit charter school network of more traditional schools called Accel. That chain now has more than 40 schools in Ohio.

In the meantime, online schools nationally have been under increased scrutiny. In 2015, Stanford University researchers reported that students learned so much less in online schools that it was equivalent to skipping 72 days of school in reading and 180 days – almost an entire school year – in math.

Those findings led charter advocates to start disowning online schools, to express “outrage” over scores and start calling for changes to e-school laws.

Packard’s return to online schools with his acquisition OhDELA, which was formerly run by controversial White Hat Management, comes amid that backdrop and Ohio’s recent promise to examine e-school funding and rules later this year.

“Of course I made mistakes at K12,” Packard openly concedes.

The biggest?

“K12 didn’t quite change fast enough to reflect the student demographics that changed coming into the schools,” he said.

When K12 started, he said, schools would attract students that are a good fit for online schools – motivated, self-directed learners who benefit from a chance to work independently. But not every student is a good fit, he and a growing number of experts say. As K12 advertised to attract students by the thousands and increase its revenue, students came with more challenges.

“The overwhelming majority of kids were coming in way behind grade level...and they didn’t have support of households. The model needed to change to reflect that.”

Those students, he said, need far more help from the school.

That’s why to have students meet with staff more often. It won’t be at the level of “blended” schools, which have students take lessons in person a couple days a week, while working online other days. He envisions monthly visits or having students come to a school for tutoring and to take ongoing tests of their progress.

“It helps teachers form relationships with students and it helps validate that what we’re seeing online is actually happening with the students,” he said.

That would normally pose a challenge for a statewide e-school, whose students live hours away. But Packard plans to use his 40 other schools across the state as local “resource rooms” for OhDELA students to receive in-person help. He envisions borrowing space from schools with extra room, or just having OhDELA students come in after 3 p.m., when other students leave.

Controlling what students enroll in e-schools would take legislative change. As charter schools, online schools are public schools that must accept and teach any student that enrolls. That leads to many enrolling to avoid truancy, but not doing any work. Sometimes schools are happy to leave them on the rolls, so state funding keeps rolling in, but other schools sometimes don’t have the ability to kick them out..

Packard views enrolling in an e-schools as a right of any student, but staying is a privilege they have to earn. He envisions an eight-week trial period for new students, followed by a review of their progress.

If they do not become more engaged in a month-long probation period, he wants to boot them.

“If they’re not engaging after twelve weeks, they should be out of there,” he said. “Not sitting there for a year.”

He added: “If a student isn’t fully engaged in the process, they can be moved to a brick-and-mortar school,” he said.

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