Sunday, September 30, 2012 at 8:00 AM
TRECA Digital Academy staffer Tina Dracon helps 17-year-old Jonathan Poling get his computer set up as mother Liz looks on during an September orientation session.
Few graduates of Ohio's statewide online schools attend postsecondary training: not a two-year community college, not a four-year public university and often not even training for a vocational certificate.
Fewer than one in 10 online school graduates go on for postsecondary work, compared with nearly four in 10 for Ohio's "Big 8" urban districts, according to the Ohio Board of Regents, which tracks only in-state public programs.
Supporters of online schools say the best comparison is to the urban districts because they serve students with similar challenges.
Officials at some online schools say many of their students don't want to attend postsecondary institutions. They say many of their students struggled in traditional school and are parents or full-time workers. They say that just getting a high school diploma is an achievement for those students, and that probably even that would have been out of reach if traditional, bricks-and-mortar schools were their only option.
"College isn't necessarily the goal for a majority of our student population," said Nick Wilson, a spokesman for the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, Ohio's first online school and one of its largest. Five percent of ECOT graduates went on to postsecondary education, according to the most recent state figures.
"We match students with their goals and their potential. It's up to others to decide if that's a number that is reasonable," Wilson said of the school's postsecondary enrollment rate.
For some online-school students, going to college does seem like a reasonable plan.
[module align="right" width="half" type="aside"]These stories are the result of a reporting partnership between StateImpact Ohio and the Cleveland Plain Dealer. StateImpact reporters Molly Bloom and Ida Lieszkovszky teamed up with Plain Dealer reporter Patrick O’Donnell to examine online schools.
Part 1: Few online school graduates go to college
Antonio Sedlacek is starting classes at TRECA Digital Academy, a nonprofit online school, this fall. He said he fell behind in high school in Sandusky after being suspended several times. He stopped attending school after the rest of his class graduated. Sedlacek, now 20, works as a grill cook at a Cracker Barrel restaurant.
"And two years later, I'm like, 'Well, now I'm tired of working this job. I want to go to college. I want to graduate and move on," he said.
There's little national data on how many graduates of online K-12 schools go on to college.
But Susan Patrick, president of the International Association for Online K-12 Learning, an online-education advocacy group, said all online school graduates need to be "globally competitive." And she said that often means having some kind of postsecondary education.
"Our organization is really focused on every kid having access to a world-class education. . . . In today's world, it's really hard to be successful without at least a two-year credential or a four-year credential," Patrick said.
Many online schools represent "schools within schools," Patrick said, groups of students with very different backgrounds and ambitions.
Meet some of the range of students who enroll in online schools in Ohio:
There's Sedlacek, who hopes to attend a trade school and work on cars.
And then there's Crate Price, an 11-year-old from Hilliard who enrolled in ECOT last year. Crate likes to build computer programs with his dad, watch science videos online and read science articles. He didn't fit in with his classmates at his local school.
They teased him for "saying smart things that they didn't know about," explained his mother, Ericka Price.
But at ECOT, Crate is calm, happy and on track to graduate by the time he turns 16 and go on to get a four-year degree in "anything tech-related," he said.
Ohio's seven statewide online schools enroll students from across the state. (Note: Please see correction at bottom of this story.)
Online-school advocates say that measuring how well Ohio's statewide online schools teach students is difficult because their student bodies are diverse and constantly changing.
Urban schools and some online schools tend to have high proportions of low-income children and families who change schools often.
At some online schools, nearly two-thirds of students have been enrolled for less than a year, according to state data.
Even the Cleveland school district, with the high mobility of urban schools, has a more stable student population.
Some students find online school doesn't work for them or they miss seeing classmates every day and return to bricks-and-mortar schools. Some move out of state. Others quit school entirely.
And some students view online school as a short-term solution; they intend to change schools as soon as their health, well-being or family responsibilities allow.
As a group, the seven statewide online schools got the equivalents of 2 B's, 3 C's and 2 D's on their state report cards for 2010-11. That's roughly the same record as Ohio's "Big 8" urban school districts.
(Report card grades for the 2011-12 school year have not yet been released.)
Value-added measures whether elementary and middle-school students make at least a year's worth of progress in reading and math, regardless of where the students stood at the start of the year. Three of Ohio's "Big 8" urban districts did meet value-added.
K12 Inc.'s Ohio Virtual Academy, which got a B from the state in 2010-11, is one of Ohio's largest online schools with about 10,000 students in 2010-11. Kristin Stewart, the head of the academy, said enrollment is even higher this year.
Most Ohio Virtual Academy students are in elementary and middle school. Last year, the school's passing rates on state tests for most elementary and middle-school grades and subjects fell short of the state standard of 75 percent. And the school overall did not meet value-added, meaning Ohio Virtual Academy students progressed less than expected during that school year.
At ECOT, Ohio's other large online school, most students are in high school. While less than a third of ECOT students graduated within four years of starting ninth grade, according to the most recent state data available, ECOT officials say many of those students come to them a year or more behind academically. In 2011-12, the school met state standards for passing rates on half of the high school state tests and subjects, according to the preliminary state results.
And many of the online-school students and their families say they never would have graduated had traditional schools been their only option.
"I know when I was in school at the same grade as him, if I could have left school and gone to school online, I would have done it in a heartbeat," mother Ericka Price said, referring to her son Crate.
Price said that she wasn't aware of online schools' low postsecondary enrollment rates but that if she had been, it wouldn't have changed her decision.
She said she and her husband would probably take the lead on helping Crate plan for college.
"I'm sure his guidance counselor at ECOT will be a resource, too," she said.
At Ohio's statewide online schools, between 5 and 15 percent of graduates go on to attend some kind of public, in-state postsecondary education, depending on the school.
That's according to the most recent data available from the Ohio Board of Regents, for the Class of 2009. It includes students going to community colleges as well as public four-year universities.
At two schools - Pearson's Ohio Connections Academy and White Hat's OHDELA - no Class of 2009 graduates went on to public postsecondary education, according to the Ohio Board of Regents.(Please see correction.)
Compare that to the 40 percent of Cleveland graduates and 34 percent of Akron graduates who enrolled in public postsecondary programs in the same year.
[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]
"If you have a four-year degree or a college degree or an associate's degree . . . you have a higher earning potential, more doors are open to you. It is our responsibility to help our students connect to that next step."
--Cleveland schools curriculum and instruction chief Karen Thompson
Stewart, the head of Ohio Virtual Academy, believes her online school's current college enrollment rates may actually be higher than the three-year old state data show.
The state data only include public programs within Ohio. And Ohio Virtual Academy had just 84 graduates in 2009; last year it had three times as many. Last year, about half of the school's 256 graduates enrolled in public and private colleges, according to national data provided by Stewart.
For nearly every online school, about two-thirds of graduates who did enroll in postsecondary education were not ready to take college-level courses, according to Board of Regents data. The exception is K12's Ohio Virtual Academy, where most graduates were ready for college-level work.
Statewide, 41 percent of graduates from all types of schools were not ready for college-level courses.
However, when statewide-online-school students do apply to college, admissions directors say they're treated the same as other applicants.
"Those who would fare better would be those who took a strong curriculum, have good grades and good test scores," said Ohio State University Interim Director of Admissions Operations Stephanie Sanders. "If they don't have those things, then where they went to high school isn't going to make much difference."
For most traditional public schools, tracking where graduates go on to college is standard.
But few of the seven statewide online schools keep records of whether students actually go to college. For that information, the only public source is the three-year-old Board of Regents data for public postsecondary programs.
And some of the online schools weren't even aware of services that can provide current, national information on what their alumni do after graduation.
"That's scary," said Michele Scott Taylor, who leads college enrollment efforts for a group of organizations that work with Cleveland-area school districts to get more students ready for and enrolled in college.
Statewide online schools don't ignore the possibility of college.
Ohio Virtual Academy high school students are "highly encouraged" to attend weekly online counseling webinars that cover topics such as completing a college application and applying for scholarships, Stewart said.
At ECOT, counselors start talking with students in seventh grade about their plans, ECOT student services director Brittny Pierson said.
In high school, students learn about resumes and cover letters in English class. Counselors for 11th and 12th grades tell students about opportunities to take the SAT and ACT college entrance tests. They offer online and in-person help in filling out financial aid forms. And most ECOT high school students take at least one course that covers personal finance and picking a career.
ECOT also offers in-person visits to colleges.
Sharon Baker's son Brae is on track to graduate from ECOT in 2014.
Baker, who lives in Mansfield, says ECOT teachers encouraged Brae to enter an essay contest that won him a weeklong stay at Ohio Dominican University. Now he wants to attend Ohio Dominican, major in philosophy and then go to business or law school.
At his local school, "he was begging to drop out of high school," Baker said. "Two years later, he has plans to go to college - not just a college, a great college."
ECOT doesn't have a highly structured approach to college counseling, though that is "something we're looking at," ECOT high school Principal Jim Condron said.
Contrast that with Cleveland-area bricks-and-mortar schools.
Cleveland-area school districts and Taylor's group, College Now Greater Cleveland, track not only if students go to college, but also where they go and if they graduate. College Now places college advisers in every Cleveland high school and tracks if the counselors meet goals such as meeting with students and having students fill out financial aid forms.
Still, Cleveland has a ways to go in helping students succeed in postsecondary education.
While the percentage of Cleveland high school graduates going to college has risen in the past five years, only about 20 percent of them graduate, according to district data. And while a group of local colleges, universities and civic leaders is working with local schools to improve that rate, past efforts haven't had much effect.
"This is the fourth time we've tried to do this since I came to Cleveland," Cleveland schools Chief Executive Officer Eric Gordon told The Plain Dealer last year, when the effort was launched. "This is the last time I'm doing it. We've got to get this right."
Bricks-and-mortar schools tend to have lower counselor-to-student ratios. ECOT has one counselor for every 650 students. Ohio Virtual Academy has one counselor for every 400 students. Cleveland has one for every 180 students, according to Ohio Department of Education data. The lower ratio, plus more "face time," means it's often easier for traditional-school counselors to form relationships with students.
"It's important to establish trust with students because a lot of the barriers to them going on to college are not academic," Taylor said.
Like other traditional school districts, Cleveland has agreements with several four-year colleges to give students who meet academic requirements full-tuition scholarships.
And many Cleveland educators expect that most of their students will go on to college.
"It is our job. It's our job because the statistics show, whether we agree with it or not, if you have a four-year degree or a college degree or an associate's degree . . . you have a higher earning potential, more doors are open to you," said Cleveland schools curriculum and instruction chief Karen Thompson. "It is our responsibility to help our students connect to that next step."
WKSU reporter Kelli Fitzpatrick contributed to this story.
Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly characterized how many students from OHDELA and Ohio Connections Academy enrolled in postsecondary education because of errors in Ohio Board of Regents data. The Ohio Board of Regents high school/college linkage reports for the Class of 2009 and the Class of 2010 that show where students from each high school enroll in college do not indicate that any graduates of OHDELA and Ohio Connections Academy enrolled in public postsecondary programs within Ohio. The Board of Regents says that is because the schools were "miscoded" in the system used to track student enrollment.
OHDELA does not track where its graduates actually enroll, but 53 percent of the Class of 2012 who responded to a school survey reported they intended to enroll in postsecondary education, school officials said.
Ohio Connections Academy does not currently track where its graduates actually enroll, but says that 63 percent of members of the Class of 2012 reported that they intended to attend a 2- or 4-year postsecondary program or vocational training.