Virtual school or ‘blended’ school?

Is the Indiana Agriculture and Technology School a virtual charter school or a blended charter school? It’s always been hard to tell, and it still is – even more so now that the school is offering its students a fully virtual option in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Early this year, the Indiana State Board of Education ruled the school had been operating as a virtual charter school. That was apparently illegal. The school’s authorizer is the Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson school district, and Indiana law bars school districts from authorizing virtual charter schools.

I was a little surprised, last month, to see that Indiana Agriculture and Technology School was still in business. Every time I got on Facebook, there was an ad encouraging parents to enroll their children.

It turned out that the school had agreed to a “corrective action plan” to come into compliance with state law and operate not a virtual school but as a school that “blends” online and in-person learning. The NHJ school board approved the plan in June, and state board staff signed off on the deal.

The school holds classes at a farm near Morgantown, promising hands-on experience in agriculture and technology. It supplements the classes with online instruction, using the commercial service Edgenuity.

Under the corrective action plan, IATS agreed to close a second campus at St. Joseph’s College in northwestern Indiana – because, under state law, a charter school authorized by a public school district can operate only within the district’s boundaries.

IATS also pledged to certify that less than half its instruction was being provided “in an interactive learning environment created through technology in which students are separated from their teachers by time, space, or both,” the state’s definition of virtual education. At least half of the school’s 180 annual instruction days would be provided at the farm campus – in what IATS calls agricultural performance days – or in a few supervised workplace learning days at a farm or business.

When school started in August, however, the COVID-19 pandemic was pushing some families to opt for virtual learning. IATS announced on its website that students could to stay at home and complete their agriculture performance days online. Chief academic officer Keith Marsh and agriculture teacher Amber Wolfe said the same in videos on the school’s Facebook page.

So, if IATS is a charter school that is offering an option that’s 100% virtual, does that make it a virtual charter school? Or is it a blended school because it’s giving students the option of blended learning?

Timothy Edsell, superintendent of Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson Schools, says it’s clearly the latter. “Due to the current pandemic we have been facing in this state and nation, every public school (including public charter schools) should provide an online alternative option for those students who are unable to attend in a traditional manner due to COVID-19 medical concerns,” he told me by email.

Edsell said the “vast majority” of IATS students will have at least half of their instruction in person, and the school’s blended learning model “is fully intact and compliant with the SBOE’s affirmation.”

According to the corrective action plan, it will largely be up to Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson to monitor whether IATS is complying with the agreement, although the Indiana Department of Education charter school authorizer office could make unannounced visits to check on the school.

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