Editor’s note: IowaWatch in a year-long investigation found that although each state is required to identify the bottom-scoring 5 percent of Title I schools every three years, it doesn’t mean these schools are “failing,” as some Iowa policymakers label them. Iowa’s 34 schools are on a “comprehensive” list. IowaWatch is featuring some of them.
When the COVID-19 pandemic halted in-person learning in March 2020, interest in virtual schools skyrocketed.
One of two virtual schools in the state, Iowa Virtual Academy opened in 2012 with 61 students, and as of the end of last school year served about 540 students, said Steve Hoff, principal of Iowa Virtual Academy, based in Guttenberg in northeast Iowa in the Clayton Ridge School District. It serves students from kindergarten through grade 12.
Iowa Virtual Academy is a full-time virtual public school program of the Clayton Ridge Community School District.
It is staffed by Iowa-certified teachers and operated by Stride Inc., formerly K12 Inc., a for-profit education company and virtual classroom provider based in Herndon, Virginia. The company has 118,600 students in its partner programs nationwide, a 2.6 percent increase from last year, growing 2.5 percent year-over-year, according to its annual report. It runs 76 managed public school programs, which include both virtual and blended schools (schools that combine online learning and face-to-face instruction) in 30 states and the District of Columbia.
Iowa law allows any student to enter a school system outside their home district. It’s one of the exceptions to Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds’ requirements to primarily in-person learning, the parental choice to choose a virtual option at another district. Each open-enrolled student’s home district is billed for the state’s cost per pupil for the previous year ($7,048 for fiscal year 2021), as well as the per-pupil cost for Teacher Leadership Supplement ($340.89).
Other than the pandemic, students have enrolled in Iowa Virtual Academy for myriad reasons, but the bottom line is that they all need to learn at their own pace. For some students who were struggling academically in-person, virtual can help them tailor their own learning environment.
For other students struggling with illnesses or who are in the hospital, virtual school helps them stay afloat academically. Sometimes students want a quicker academic pace so they can graduate earlier.
“We have students that the traditional brick-and-mortar school just isn’t working out for, and they want to try something different, and they came to us and they find success,” Hoff said.
Iowa Virtual Academy is currently listed as comprehensive, but within two years of its comprehensive listing met both comprehensive and targeted status. Based on scoring outlined by the Every Student Succeeds Act, the state average score for schools is 54.94. The academy has an overall score of 52.91.
Iowa’s 34 comprehensive schools are the Title I schools that score in the bottom 5 percent in the state based on students’ performance on the Iowa Statewide Assessment of Student Progress test, and/or for high schools, have a graduation rate below 67.1 percent.
Iowa Virtual Academy’s curricula is similar to that of a traditional in-person school.
“Anything that is done in a traditional school, we try to mirror that in the virtual school,” Hoff said. “The bigger challenge is, since this is a school choice, students can choose to come to us, and students can choose to leave us. Every year, if we’re growing by a rate of 30 percent, our student population is new. Fifty percent of our student population may be new, so they’re coming to us with deficiencies already, and we have to figure out what those deficiencies are, because they’re a brand-new student, and try to take those deficiencies that were already in place and make those proficient.”
Nearly 41 percent of students at the academy are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches, and 10 percent of the student body is classified as having a disability and being on an individualized education program, or IEP.
The school’s four-year graduation rate is at 58.33 percent, below the 67.1 percent cutoff for ESSA comprehensive support status. But that method of scoring doesn’t exactly fit with students in a virtual model.
“Graduation rates were created on a traditional brick and mortar [setup where] the students are attending the school for four exact years, right? In my mind, every year a student makes progress towards graduation should be counted as success, and that’s a tough thing. If students open enroll to us already credit deficient, they count on our graduation rate. So said student comes in as a senior and has 12 credits that they earned from the previous school, and is not on track to graduate, that impacts our graduation rate. So the creation of the graduation rate rating, it’s very tough when you have fluid students,” Hoff explained.
Although the school is virtual, it hasn’t been immune to hearing talk of “failing schools” coming from the Capitol.
“I try to minimize the word ‘failing,’” Hoff said. “I want to focus on our students and what I can do to try and get our students to be successful, whether that’s in school, during school, preparing them for graduation, college, career-readiness, et cetera. So that’s my focus. I try to steer away from the political landscape.”
Leah McBride Mensching is a freelance reporter for IowaWatch. She has worked as a reporter, editor, photographer and media researcher over the past 15 years, both as an independent journalist and as an editorial manager for WAN-IFRA, the global organization of the world’s press. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communication from Iowa State University and a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University.