End of the line for troubled Mass. virtual school
The state’s first and only virtual school is shutting down at the end of the school year, but few tears should be shed for the Greenfield-based online learning academy.
The Massachusetts Virtual Academy at Greenfield was launched in 2010 by the Greenfield School Committee, and it represented the state’s first foray into the world of all-online schools, a growing sector within education nationally that holds much promise but has also come in for harsh scrutiny because of poor results at many of its schools. The Greenfield school has struggled from the start, and students for whom virtual schooling is the best option will probably be better served by better-run online schools that the Western Mass.-based school.
Virtual schools are touted as an innovative approach to learning that harnesses the power of digital technology to educate students who, for reasons ranging from medical conditions to bullying to emotional issues, are not ideally suited to attend a traditional brick-and-mortar school building. With instructors available online to guide lessons and answer questions, virtual schools are experiencing tremendous growth nationally. The Greenfield school was opened by the city’s school committee under the terms of a 2009 state education reform law that gave districts new freedoms to innovate in how they structure and operate schools. About 470 students statewide, from kindergarten through eighth grade, are enrolled at the Greenfield school, which is run under a contract with K12 Inc., a huge for-profit national school operator.
State leaders had not anticipated, however, that a small school district such as Greenfield’s might use the law to open an online school that enrolls students from across the Commonwealth. In reaction to the school’s launch, the Legislature passed a new law late last year that authorizes virtual schools in the state but that requires approval from and monitoring by the state Board of Education, not simply a local district. Under the law, virtual schools would operate more like charter schools, with an independent board of trustees that is answerable directly to the state education department.
CommonWealth looked closely at the Greenfield school, in this feature story last spring and a follow-up story in November. Student growth scores at the Greenfield school were among the lowest of any school in the state and it suffered from unstable leadership and staffing. What’s more, the district’s superintendent, Susan Hollins, who spearheaded the virtual school effort, refused multiple requests to discuss the situation at the school, at one point responding with an email suggesting a reporter’s inquiries might be part of an intentional effort to undermine the school.
As with charter schools, virtual schools represent a new model in education, and well-run online schools may well have a valuable role to play in ensuring that all students have a schooling option best designed for their needs. Also as with charter schools, however, we should recognize that all virtual schools are not equal, and closing those that aren’t doing a good job is best way to promote quality in this promising new avenue in education.
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