Virtual Education Is Increasingly a Big Profit Center. But at What Cost to Students? 

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K12 co-founder William Bennett was secretary of education in the Reagan administration. - GAGE SKIDMORE/CREATIVE COMMONS
  • GAGE SKIDMORE/CREATIVE COMMONS
  • K12 co-founder William Bennett was secretary of education in the Reagan administration.

After St. Louis Public Schools placed the Roosevelt student in the virtual-education program, his mother would drop him off at the southeast corner of Tower Grove Park, near where she took her younger daughter to a Head Start public preschool. Then he would walk about ten minutes south to a public-library branch.

But though the district had prescribed the library as the solution for the family's lack of internet access, library policy limited L.W.'s computer use to two hours each day. Even beyond that, without anyone to supervise him, L.W. flailed. During the fall semester, he only logged on to the computer six times for a total of six hours of coursework, according to court documents.

The student's mother told a district administrator at the end of the semester that she felt the courses were too difficult for her son. The district reduced his course load and moved him to an easier English class for the spring semester. The mother again reached out to the district the next month with concerns about the virtual school program, but did not receive a response.

At that point, an attorney with Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, a nonprofit that aims to help low-income people and the elderly, sent an email to a district administrator requesting that the district transfer the student to a more "appropriate environment."

"The barriers [the student] faced — poverty and academic difficulties — made the Home Virtual School Program an unworkable option for him," the attorney explained, according to court records.

The student's mother, S.W., is 35 years old and has five children. She has not been employed since 2006, according to court records. The student's father was found shot dead in 2012 in a 1989 Cadillac in an industrial part of north city.

"I was still suffering, dealing with a lot of stuff after his daddy died because he was in my life for seventeen years," S.W. says of the period surrounding her son's suspension.

That spring semester, L.W. continued to log in to the computer at the library occasionally. An officer once questioned him about why he was there during school hours, according to court records.

In April 2015, Legal Services of Eastern Missouri filed a lawsuit on the family's behalf, alleging that the district had violated the student's rights to due process and an "adequate and quality education." The student's attorneys argued that the placement in the virtual-education program amounted to a suspension, and as such, he should have had the right to appeal the placement.

"I think the point that we were trying to raise is that even if you call it something else, it's still a suspension," says Luz Maria Henriquez, an attorney who represented L.W. and heads the education justice program at Legal Services of Eastern Missouri.

After that, the district started sending a facilitator to the library on Mondays to work with the student for one to two hours.

"Her responsibility was to make sure plaintiff logged in, and once he logged in, to go over the lessons with him and to provide any support he needed while she was there," court records state. L.W. started logging in more consistently but by the end of the year, he had not earned any credits towards graduation.

The Grandview district also had a virtual-education program for students with behavioral issues. At its Management School, there were usually between seven and eleven students using K12 curriculum.

"They seemed to like it," says Sean Wiley, a Grandview teacher who supervised the students and was also the head basketball coach. "It helped with grading; it made keeping track of information a lot easier, because high school students aren't the best at keeping track of notes, paperwork."

But Wiley says it was difficult to supervise the virtual education students: "Instead of teaching one lesson, they could all be doing different lessons in different subjects. That is where it became difficult and challenging — to help them all at the same time."

Many of the students in the program "didn't have a home life," Wiley says. "All the stories are different but some of the stuff I heard" — which included homes with no running water, no electricity — "some of the situations we encountered together, some of the stuff they say to you, is really stuff you never want to hear. It just breaks your heart."

Students often realized that outside of traditional classroom, they wouldn't be able to see their friends anymore. Those students, Wiley says, "would shape up. I would never hear anything bad about them again."

Others "needed that close one-on-one environment, where they got a lot of focus" — teachers from other classrooms would come to the room during prep periods to tutor them. Those students remained in the Management School until they graduated, Wiley says.

And then there was a third group, he says: students "who were going to have problems no matter what."

Mostly, he thought the program was "very effective." The district cut the Management School, however, at the end of the 2016 school year because of the embezzlement and lost funding, says superintendent Zoph.

"When you are in there every day with them and trying to help them get on the right path and get them straightened out — that's the part that bothered me," says Wiley, who lost his job with the district and now works as an insurance agent.

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