MODOC, Ind. – Union School Corp. in rural Randolph County (cattle stood in a pen next to the school last week) was one of the smallest K-12 public schools in Indiana several years ago.
It was about to close or be merged with another school district.
But over the past three years, enrollment has grown from 256 to 4,279, an increase of 1,571%.
Union is now the 73rd largest public school district in the state – behind Muncie (59th) and Richmond (62nd), but ahead of Marion (80th) and Jay County (97th).
Little Country School revenue grew from $3.5 million in 2016-17 to $25.7 million in 2018-19.
Union has contracted with K12 Inc., based in Herndon, Va., to operate three new online schools for the district: Indiana Digital Elementary, Indiana Digital Junior-Senior High School, and Indiana Digital Alternative School.
Union oversees virtual schools and still operates its elementary school and high school, which also serve as headquarters for more than a dozen Indiana Digital employees, including the school principal and virtual school nurse. .
Indiana Digital’s remaining more than 200 Indiana-certified teachers and staff are located throughout the state. Every population center in the state and nearly every county has Union enrolled students.
School board president Christie Ogden recalls an explosive board meeting five years ago in the school’s crowded cafeteria, where an advisory committee recommended consolidation.
She recalls saying “we had to think outside the box. Indiana State wanted school choice, and we were planning to give it to them,” including virtual education, “because, after all , it was the future of education,” she said. The Star Press recently.
“Our partnership with K12 provides another opportunity for Indiana children to have that choice, and it allows our community to benefit from all that K12 has to offer,” she continued.
The school district community includes Modoc, population 186, and Losantville, population 237.
K12 Inc. pays Union an annual “watchdog fee” — nearly $1 million last year — that has helped stabilize the district (in-house teachers no longer worry about losing their jobs, for example) and keep the school doors open.
“We are stable,” says Superintendent Michael Huber. “Not just stable. I feel like we’re thriving.”
Able to “reinvest in our students”
Since onsite students can also access Indiana Digital, the district has been able to increase course offerings, such as Spanish, criminal justice, and business.
“They have amazing career paths that are available to all of our students,” Ogden said via email.
Building-wise, the neighborhood hasn’t made any flashy upgrades, Huber said, but it’s now able to support necessities, like HVAC upgrades and a long-awaited new roof in the works. ‘installation.
The district didn’t bother to replace some ceiling tiles stained by the leaky roof, but once the roofing project is complete, “we’ll have all the new ceiling tiles,” Huber said in an interview.
He calls the building’s two new entrances, along with some new logo flooring, “a bit more of a luxury item.”
“We have also taken initiatives to reinvest in our students,” Huber said, citing an increase in teacher salaries this school year and the addition of an intervention specialist, a social worker and a robotics program.
At the time of that stormy school board meeting five years ago, the school district was emerging from a year in which the budget had a deficit of $241,614 that was expected to reach nearly $700,000 by 2015.
“Last year we moved $250,000 into our rainy day fund, which I think has a balance of $1.6 million,” Huber said. “We’ve slowly been able to add to that every year…instead of having to dip a little into that every year due to declining enrollment.”
The district also recruited Amish and international students to attend the school in person. Some faculty members have hosted international students in the past.
The typical digital student is an “atypical” student
Because Indiana Digital is a public school system operating under the Union, there are no tuition fees. The virtual school side of the operation receives state funding, just like the traditional school, but is not eligible to receive local property tax funds or Title 1 federal dollars for students from of low-income households. The Union receives Title 1 funding for in-school students, but must share this funding with the Indiana Digital operation.
Union does not charge textbook rental fees to students. Online students also receive a free laptop and printer. A parent or other responsible adult serves as a learning coach for virtual students.
The typical student at Indiana Digital is “an atypical student,” says Elizabeth Sliger, the school’s principal.
Online public school students include students whose families want them to receive individualized instruction; families with safety, social, and health concerns about their local school, including students experiencing bullying or discrimination; students with disabilities; student athletes and performers as actors; students who have failed a class and are retaking a class; and students from military families. One of Union’s online students is pursuing a career driving race cars.
“A lot of kids struggle in brick-and-mortar schools,” Huber said. “We can sometimes do a better job of removing that student with social anxiety or special needs from that overwhelming situation of being in a building with other people.”
Sliger, the school principal, and other Indiana Digital staff, including teachers, are employees of K12 Inc., which provides the curriculum, software systems, and support services. But the ultimate decision maker on how the three online schools operate is the school board.
“We’re a school district like any other school district,” Huber said. “We only have five schools now, all under the Union umbrella, just like Muncie (community schools) has Central High School, a career center and other schools.”
The superintendent compares the partnership with K12 Inc. to a school district contract with a company to provide security or school lunches.
Different from Daleville
Another small school district, Daleville Community Schools, has infamously partnered with Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, whose funding was cut by the state last year for overreporting their enrollment and raised about $40 million too much in taxpayers’ money.
“I don’t know how Daleville has operated, but the way we operate, she’s in my building, we meet regularly to go over reports, there’s a lot of checks and balances, and we’re a team,” Huber said of Sliger. “There’s also a difference, when you’re running a charter school, you’re an authorizer.”
The two online schools associated with Daleville were charter schools authorized by Daleville.
The two controversial online charter schools have gone out of business, as Indiana Digital knows, announcing on its website: “For the families impacted by the closures of Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, we are always registered and ready to serve you!”
Another difference between Daleville and Union is K12 Inc., founded in 2000, which in fiscal year 2019 served 75 virtual public managed schools and coeducational schools in 30 states and the District of Columbia.
The company posted revenue of $1.015 billion in fiscal 2019 and net profit of $37.2 million. Enrollment in the company’s public schools reached 118,800 last year.
Union has contracted with K12 to operate Indiana Digital until at least 2029.
The contract provides that Union School Corp. will withhold 5% of Indiana Digital’s program revenue each year as a monitoring fee (a minimum fee of $200,000 was guaranteed in the first year of the contract and $300,000 in the second year).
The union collected supervisory fees of $969,800 for the 2018-2019 school year.
Fees are based on the number of online students enrolled, so as enrollment increases, so does the fee. Union registrations grew from 256 in 2016-17 to 937 in 2017-18, the first year of the partnership with K12. It rose to 3,371 the following year before reaching 4,279 this school year. The school board has capped the number of students online at Union at 4,000 for now.
K12 also rents offices from Union in the school building.
K12 also powers three other online or co-educational schools in Indiana: Insight School of Indiana (946 enrollments) and Hoosier Academy in Indianapolis, both charter schools in Marion County; and Gary Virtual Academy (registration 16).
In state-issued report cards measuring student performance and growth, Union School Corp. -18 (first-year online students added to district).
State AF accountability scores for 2018-2019 have not been released to protect schools from low statewide scores on the new ILEARN standardized test.
The Indiana Department of Education recently released the Federal Schools Accountability Ratings for 2018-2019. The Union’s three virtual schools have not been rated, but are expected to be next year.
“A significant portion of our population is disadvantaged,” Sliger said. “A lot of these kids are overcoming barriers, including a lot of low-income kids.
“High-poverty, high-mobility schools just won’t perform as well,” Huber continued. “For us also, what is perhaps more important is that the mobility rate… We have children who come in and out a lot… We can have them for a year, and they can be two levels behind when ‘they come to us, but we only have a year to catch them for this test – not even a year, more like eight months.
“And we’re responsible for that score, but we’re getting good growth from our kids. It’s just that passing percentage that’s a struggle for us because of where the kids started.”
The nature of online education is that it often serves as a temporary solution for students, Sliger said.
“It’s important for people to understand that we don’t turn away transfer students for poor grades at Union,” said Ogden, the school board’s chairman. “Often, surrounding districts send students who need the utmost attention, and we do our best to make sure they receive it. Does it affect our test scores? Our graduation rate? Absolutely. “Does the state take that into consideration? No. regret accepting these children? Absolutely not. We accept them all with open arms…”
The “F” grade, according to Ogden, does not define Union students, administrators, or teachers.
The state’s response schedule is based on the number of consecutive “F” grades a school receives.
Contact Seth Slabaugh at 765-213-5834 or firstname.lastname@example.org