FRANKTON – As Anderson resident Callie McAtee entered her senior year of high school in August, she looked for a flexible option to complete her high school education.
“I work at a day care, so I thought maybe I could do a half day. I only needed a few credits to graduate,” she said.
McAtee, 18, considered taking advantage of school choice to go up the road to Frankton Jr.-Sr. High School. Instead, she was directed to the district’s new virtual school, where she now is completing English 12, psychology, sociology, government, personal finance, and career and development.
“It works out really well because it’s flexible, so if I have to do my work later in the day, that makes it a lot easier,” she said.
Frankton-Lapel Community Schools this school year became one of the first districts in the state to start an online academy to serve its students.
The online academy has about 50 students, including 19 full-time students.
Tuition-free to students, the school operates on a semester schedule but allows students to work at their own pace.
This isn’t McAtee’s first go-around with virtual schools. A former student at Anderson Christian School, she actually had attended online schools for about half her education.
“Around sixth grade it was just getting smaller, and I really didn’t want to go to public school, so I went online,” she said. “This one, I think, actually is better than the other one. I don’t have to watch the classes, I just have to do my work.”
McAtee said she doesn’t feel like she misses all the social aspects of high school, such as attending homecoming, participating in clubs or joining the cheerleading squad by attending a virtual high school. Much of her social life is wrapped up in the private dance classes she takes.
“The other online school when I did it, they had a prom,” she said.
Still, though she is undecided, McAtee said she plans to actually attend classes once she settles on a college and decides on a major.
Money is a motive
In theory, it would seem necessary for the state to have only one virtual school, especially since a company called Edgenuity provides the technical platform for most of the state’s online schools, including the one at Frankton-Lapel.
Frankton-Lapel Superintendent Bobby Fields said the motivation that started the district on the tract toward a virtual school is the oldest one in the book: money. The district receives base tuition support from the state of $5,352 per student.
The per-student licensing cost to use Edgenuity’s platform is only $275. The district needs only about 10 students to break even on the cost of a teacher/administrator.
The district already uses Edgenuity for credit recovery, summer school and alternative school, so it was the natural choice to power Frankton-Lapel’s new website.
Though it sounds a little mercenary, Fields said there are other reasons for the district to operate its own virtual school, including the demand for blended education options; the availability of dual-credit, advanced placement and specialized courses that would be difficult to staff with fewer students; and the possibility of luring back students who defect to other school districts or online options. The online option also is great for students who are homebound because of illness, which can be labor intensive and expensive because of home visits by teachers.
“We were tired of our students dropping out of our schools and enrolling in an online academy somewhere,” he said. “Sometimes they would come back and not have many credits. That year away wasn’t very successful.”
Committed to meeting students where they are, the district’s blended schedules allow students to take some classes at the high school and some online. For instance, a student may take band and physical education at the high school and complete the remainder of the coursework online.
“If a kid wanted to take a blended schedule, the Indiana online academy wouldn’t be a very good choice,” he said.
Students also have the benefit of receiving a Frankton-Lapel diploma, taking advantage of the district’s reputation, Fields said.
“We thought that might be more appealing to them to get a diploma from our online academy,” he said. “A lot of these online academies might be in Florida and based somewhere else.”
Viewed with suspicion
He agreed that many superintendents look at online education with suspicion, but Fields said it’s the future. Fields said as he completed his advanced degrees, he commuted to Muncie to attend classes at Ball State.
“By the time I finished my superintendent’s license, I was completing my courses online,” he said.
“The virtual part of that is going to be bigger and bigger as we go along,” he said. “I want to be on the forefront of that, to be honest.”
One objection is the perception that online education is less rigorous. But Fields said the district can control the quality of the education.
“We can add components to the online courses that we offer that adds a little more rigor to them,” he said. “Sometimes, we feel the rigor is not there, so we can add rigor.”
A former biology teacher, Molly Bays serves as the teacher/coordinator for Frankton-Lapel’s online school.
“I just thought that it was a unique opportunity for the school and for the students. It seems like more and more you’re seeing alternative schooling,” she said.
Bays said she was surprised at the school’s growth even in its first year.
“We were going to be happy having 10 students. We haven’t advertised it or anything. It’s just grown by word of mouth by need of the students,” she said.