While Alabama’s high school students have had access to virtual coursework for ten years, last week Alabama lawmakers laid the legislative groundwork for students to earn an Alabama high school diploma entirely in a virtual, or online, environment, beginning in the 2016-2017 school year.
The bill, supported by the Alabama Association of School Boards (AASB), was introduced in each chamber, with Senator Dick Brewbaker’s (R-Montgomery) version, SB72, making it to the finish line with only two amendments. It currently awaiting the Governor’s signature.
This bill is as interesting for what it leaves out as for what it contains.
Without much fanfare, the bill mandates that each board of education create a policy to govern their virtual school option, requiring a local board’s policy include:
(1) The scope and delivery of virtual options,
(2) Student eligibility criteria for initial and continuing participation in the virtual program,
(3) Specific requirements for monitoring performance and testing protocol consistent with this act, and
(4) Attendance requirements, if any.
It uncharacteristically leaves out the details of how virtual school options are to be implemented in Alabama’s schools, with two notable exceptions: the option to participate in extracurricular activities and mandatory participation in state-mandated testing.
This leaves much control of the virtual school in the realm of the local board of education.
And yes, technology infrastructure remains a challenge. Read this from Mary Sell for more on that issue.
In February, the State Board of Education heard a presentation from the Alabama Educational Technology Association about the Alabama WIRED Plan to improve technology infrastructure within schools.
SB1 has been approved by the full Senate, but sits in the House Ways and Mean Education committee awaiting review and approval. That $50 million would only be used for infrastructure, not devices or educational software.
Alabama’s public schools already offer a wide range of virtual options. Let’s take a look at some of them.
Alabama has been in the virtual instruction business since 2005. The ACCESS (Alabama Connecting Classrooms, Educators, and Students Statewide) program began as a “distance and blended learning” program, with the idea of virtually providing instruction to students whose schools might not have the ability to provide specific coursework due to funding or other constraints.
According to the ACCESS Plan for Continued Excellence, “the goal of the Alabama ACCESS Distance and Blended Learning model is to provide equity through additional high‐quality course offerings for all Alabama public high school students”.
The “blended” model of learning is where students “blend” virtual instruction with physical seat time in the classroom.
Classrooms in high schools across Alabama were initially set up with videoconferencing equipment to allow a qualified teacher to be in one location and a classroom full of students in another, with instruction delivered through videoconference. The only requirement for schools receiving ACCESS instruction was that a facilitator be in the classroom when the class met for instruction.
Over the years, schools have continued to experiment with the blended model, with some schools moving away from the videoconference model to having actual web-based coursework available at any time for students to access.
Students typically still report to a brick-and-mortar school to take tests, however there are some schools that are allowing students to take tests from home as well, according to Larry Raines, ACCESS Program Administrator for the Alabama State Department of Education.
Teachers can participate in professional development through ACCESS. There are currently 902 teachers participating in professional development coursework through ACCESS.
Raines shared up-to-date numbers on student and school participation: as of April 24, there are 27,323 course enrollments by 20,828 unique students in 109 courses in 386 schools.
There are a few private schools participating after legislation opened up ACCESS to private schools in 2013. Private schools are charged a fee for ACCESS courses.
The image below shows all of the courses available through ACCESS. Students in eighth through twelfth grades can participate in ACCESS courses. Raines indicated that seventh-grade students can participate if deemed eligible by State Superintendent Dr. Tommy Bice.
Courses are free to students during the regular school year.
Note that Advanced Placement (AP), Credit Recovery (CR) and Credit Advancement (CA) are offered as well. Students who are concerned about NCAA eligibility should make certain they understand which CR and CA coursework is accepted by the NCAA before enrolling in those courses.
Summer school offerings through ACCESS are helpful for students who need to fit more courses into their schedule than there is room in the school day. Students do incur fees for summer school coursework.
Here’s a look at the distribution of course enrollments across Alabama’s school districts for the 2014-2015 school year. Note that any school district listed as having nine course enrollments actually had some number greater than one but less than ten. The exact number was not given in order to protect student privacy.
Virtual School Experiments
A number of school districts are in various stages of implementing virtual schools or academies.
For some, the appeal is increasing graduation rates. For others, it appears to be simply a desire to offer students an alternative way to attend school. Still for others, it is seen as a way to fit more coursework into a student’s busy day. Still for some, it may be a way to conduct school with fewer funds.
Of the 12 Innovation Waivers approved by the State Board of Education, three have a virtual school component to them.
Baldwin County’s Virtual School opened during the 2013-2014 school year for grades 9 through 12, and as of January 2015, had 58 students enrolled. Instruction is provided through ACCESS, and local electives are being offered as well. Students must report to a central location to take assessments. This school opened as a result of the State Board of Education approving Baldwin County’s Innovation Waiver in May of 2014. Requirements to be admitted include having a 2.0 GPA and not more than five unexcused absences. In addition, students cannot have been suspended more than once in the previous school year. A student’s GPA cannot go below a 2.0 throughout enrollment.
Mobile County Public Schools opened the Envision Virtual Academy for students in grades 6 through 12 at the beginning of this school year with a target enrollment of 250 and plans to expand to 500. A blog post from the district announcing 2016 registration for the Academy states that the type of students best suited for the Academy are “the average to above average students that prefer to have more control over their learning environment, pacing and schedule” and that “have placed a priority on academics,” adding that “most prefer to work independently without social interaction with peers”.
Florence City Schools has experienced success with the Virtual High School they began in 2013 and plans to expand to seventh and eighth grade next fall. A student must maintain an “80 average” to continue enrollment in the Virtual High School. The school offers 27 online courses for the 2015-2016 school year.
Decatur City Schools offers Virtual School for students in grades 6 through 12 who maintain a 3.0 GPA in virtual coursework. Courses are offered through Edmentum, a private company, rather than ACCESS.
Hartselle City school officials have begun sharing information with community members about their plans for Hartselle Virtual Academy, but that information is not available online.
Lawrence County has applied for an innovation waiver to open a virtual school, and while school officials state the desire to open a virtual school is not a direct response to losing a large employer (and thus a large amount of funding) in their area, they do look at being able to offer virtual classes as a “safety net” if funding becomes a problem.
Montgomery County’s board of education approved a virtual school program on Tuesday evening.
Extracurriculars and Accountability Requirements
There are two areas that are dictated in the law that leave no room for interpretation: participation in extracurricular activities (including sports) and testing requirements.
The new law allows students who are enrolled in virtual schools to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities at their school of record. Sports participation must be in compliance with current Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) rules, but as long as the student is a full-time student at the school, all sports participation is allowed, though students that choose to enroll in another district’s virtual school must sit out for a year, just as students who transfer without a bona fide move (as the AHSAA defines it) are not immediately eligible. See this AHSAA document (beginning on page 9 of the PDF) for information about bona fide moves.
Mobile and Baldwin County’s virtual programs currently do not allow participation in extracurricular activities, but will likely have to change their programs to comply with this law. Florence City and Decatur City allow students enrolled in their virtual academy to participate in extracurricular activities.
Students enrolled in virtual schools must participate in annual state assessments as well. Currently, that means sophomores must take the ACT PLAN (which will be called the ACT Aspire next year), juniors must take the ACT with Writing, and seniors must take the ACT WorkKeys assessment.
A number of school officials have specifically mentioned the hope that homeschooled students will take advantage of online coursework offered through virtual academies. While no one has good numbers on how many children in Alabama are homeschooled, an accepted estimate is two to three percent of school-aged children, which could mean between 16,000 and 24,000 students statewide.
In February, Morgan County began piloting a K-5 virtual school specifically geared toward homeschoolers. At this time, they appear to be the only program in the state with an elementary program. Morgan County began a ninth through twelfth grade virtual pilot as well, but that program is open only to current Morgan County students.
And if homeschoolers participate in virtual public schools once the law takes effect, they must be allowed to participate in extracurricular activities, including sports programs.
Participation in state-mandated assessments will be mandatory as well.
The Legislative Task Force to Study Virtual Schooling
Back to the bill.
The bill mandates a legislative task force be created “to review and make recommendations for realigning the funding, structure, and curriculum of the ACCESS program and to aid in the implementation of this act.”
The task force will contain the following members:
- Four members, with two appointed by the Chair of the Senate Education and Youth Affairs Committee and two appointed by the Chair of the House of Representatives Education Policy Committee.
- Two members, with one appointed by the Chair of the Senate Finance and Taxation Education Committee and one appointed by the Chair of the House of Representatives Ways and Means Education Committee.
- Two members appointed by the Governor.
- Two members appointed by the State Superintendent of Education.
- One representative from each of the following: The Alabama Association of School Boards (AASB), the School Superintendents of Alabama (SSA), the Council for Leaders in Alabama Schools (CLAS), the Alabama Educational Technology Association (AETA), and the Office of Educational Technology of the State Department of Education.
The task force will meet at least once every four months and will report its findings and recommendations to the legislature at some point before the 2016 legislative session.
It is unclear whether the legislative task force will replace the ACCESS Distance and Blended Learning Task Force that met in 2004 to create ACCESS and again in 2010 to create the 2011-2016 plan.
Leaving implementation up to local school districts leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Districts are already implementing virtual schooling in various ways, but some amount of standardization will likely occur.
Funding for technology infrastructure is the biggest unknown, but with SB1 still on the table, and a good bit of time before the start of the 2016-2017 school year, anything is possible.
Questions about quality remain, as NPR points out in this story from February. How will quality be measured? With no high school exit exam, students need only attain the appropriate number of credits in the appropriate courses, and they earn a diploma. Will virtual schools be assigned a cost center and students properly rostered to ensure accountability results, however measured, are easily connected to the virtual school?
How do IDEA and special education requirements intersect with virtual schools? This paper suggests school districts must be diligent in determining whether virtual school is appropriate for children receiving special education services, and this announcement of a resolution agreement in a civil rights dispute between the U.S. Department of Education and a virtual charter school clearly delineate the possibility of access issues for students receiving special education services.
As Alabama continues to develop and conduct its virtual school experiments, quality must be monitored carefully to determine whether the outcomes are good for children in virtual schools.