More choice but plenty of headaches

Options abound for today’s parents, but are the kids learning more?

Ohio’s decade-long explosion of school choice has provided parents with more ways than ever to educate their children, but it’s also left parents grasping for information, schools fighting over students, and the state struggling to monitor whether those students are learning.

From 2009 to 2014, enrollment in traditional district schools dropped 12 percent in Ohio, while private and Catholic school enrollment dropped 11 percent. Online school enrollment increased 67 percent in that span, while the charter school sector as a whole increased 33 percent.

The proliferation of choices has ramped up competition for students.

“As a school, you just have to keep getting better all across the board because of all of the competition,” said Dirk Allen, director of admissions and media relations at Badin High School.

But the definition of “best possible educational experience” can vary by family. One parent may want a school that stands out academically on the state report card. Another may put religious values first, or want their child to learn online due to social pressures in busy schools.

Parents in their 30s or 40s are now trying to understand charter, STEM and online options that largely didn’t exist when they were students.

“I think it’s almost overwhelming for parents right now because of all the choices,” said Robin Fisher, superintendent of the STEM School, which serves students from eight counties. “A family may have three kids and a different choice for each one may be the right fit.”

And while most schools in Ohio are operating responsibly, there are enough examples of misdeeds to make parents wonder if the state is providing high-quality oversight of a half-dozen school models, governed by varying laws and rules.

On the public school side, multiple Columbus school officials have been convicted in an attendance scrubbing scandal. Ohio’s charter school sector has been widely panned for poor academic results and misspent money. And an Ohio Department of Education official resigned this summer after illegally removing poor test results of online schools from sponsor evaluations. ODE said Thursday that a review of that situation is ongoing.

Online choices grow

It’s easy to see why Anna Marie Ridenour is a supporter of the Connections Academy. When she entered the fifth grade, she switched from St. Julie Billiart School in Hamilton to the online classroom.

Ridenour, 22, said she enjoyed being able to study at her own pace because she’s a “fast learner.” She also praised the school’s flexible schedule, curriculum and what she called “a community of teachers.”

Then she added: “No two kids all the same. Not all students can learn in the same school.”

The Monroe resident graduated from the academy in 2011, earned her bachelor’s degree in education from Mount St. Joseph University, and is about to begin her first year teaching math with Connections Academy.

“This just feels right,” she said.

Cyndi Fugate said her family began online schooling for their two daughters several years ago when they weren’t happy with local school options.

“I had a friend whose kids did virtual school with (Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow), but I didn’t really care for their approach because the kids were on the computer so much,” Fugate said. “So I started researching and I came across Ohio Connections Academy, which seemed like a nice fusion of homeschooling, with some elements of public school that I wasn’t prepared (to provide).”

The family now lives in Clayton, with daughter Delaney preparing for junior year courses in Algebra 2, English, psychology, government and earth science. She also takes an art class at Sinclair.

“I get to do school from home, and I don’t have to worry about bullying and peer pressure,” Delaney said. “I feel more comfortable, and I also get more work done than I think I would in a public school environment.”

Cyndi Fugate touted a flexible school day (they usually work from 9 a.m. to 3 or 4 p.m.) with phones put away. There are video lessons — some taped and some live — required quick checks at the end of lessons to ensure comprehension, and occasional 1-on-1 phone calls with teachers on problem subjects.

But she cautioned that online school is not a great fit for everyone, emphasizing that students need to be self-motivated and independent workers, while parents need to have the time and desire to be involved as a “learning coach.”

Options and scores

That idea of finding a good fit, with one size not fitting all, was repeated by parents and educators from several types of schools.

“Our laws are based on the idea that there is simply no one model of learning that would fit each of our state’s 1.6 million students,” said Sponhour, of ODE.

The irony is that public school districts must try to “fit all,” serving nearly any resident who registers.

Churchill said school choice has created more good options for poor, urban students.

The three biggest online schools in Ohio had a range of scores in performance index in 2013-14. Connections Academy got a high C, Ohio Virtual Academy students received a low C and ECOT students earned a D.

The STEM School had one of the highest scores in the area, just missing an A. But all four of those schools had Fs in student growth.

State school board president Tom Gunlock argued that online schools’ scores can be misleading, as those schools draw many students who leave public schools because of academic struggles, health problems or even drug issues. Gunlock said he’s a strong supporter of school choice, but he acknowledged that having more choices can make it more difficult to come to a decision.

“As a parent, you have to be willing to study the choices,” Gunlock said. “That takes work. There’s plenty of information out there about the different schools, but you have to go and get it.”

Middletown, like most public schools, has seen a drop in enrollment recently, school officials said. Middletown’s enrollment has dipped from 6,784 in the 2010-11 school year to 6,510 during the 2014-15 school year, a decrease of 4 percent.

Superintendent Sam Ison said he believes in public education because it provides students with a “holistic perspective.” He said in public schools, students experience activities that extend beyond the school day.Also, he said, he welcomes competition for students as “long as we don’t lose what we are about.” He understands why some students prefer on-line classes, but he doesn’t want to lose the personal relationships among students, staff, teachers and coaches.

“We are about preparing people for the success for life,” he said. “That’s what we are about. Beyond what you can do on-line.”

Homeschool growing

Finding information on your public school district is fairly easy, in person, online or on the phone. But with homeschooling, where small groups of parents often band together to educate their children, it can be tougher.

Leah Green is director of the Veritas Christian Homeschool Group, which serves about 60 families with 175 students, many from Warren County. Green said students study core subjects plus some electives, mainly at home, but hold a weekly meeting in Middletown where students work with parent teachers who have backgrounds in everything from literature to chemistry.

The National Home Education Research Institute estimates that the homeschool population is growing by 2 percent to 8 percent per year. Green said her group sees that demand, too, with enrollment full for the year and people on a waiting list.

“Back in the ’90s, homeschool was more of an anomaly, and people were a little standoffish,” Green said. “Today, between K12 and all of the other options, you don’t get such a weird reaction, like, oh, you homeschool?”

Emily Morales’ teenage boys are homeschooled through Veritas, and she’s glad her sons have been protected from some of the “fads” in Ohio education, as state standards and math techniques have changed for many students.

“But I think every good parent — public, private or homeschool — second guesses whether they’re doing the best for their child,” Morales said. “There are some very good things public school does. … But there’s self-evaluation in most good homeschools for us to confirm, was this a good decision?”

Which choice to make

One issue with homeschooling is college admission. Rob Reed, senior assistant director of undergraduate admissions at Ohio State, said online and homeschool applications are the hardest to evaluate.

“For a student who has never stepped foot inside the traditional system, it’s hard to determine what that 3.8 GPA means,” Reed said. “So looking at the SAT or ACT score, as well as their essay, can take on more importance.”

Catholic schools are exempt from current state exams, eliminating some comparisons on those scores. State legislators just made it easier for students from struggling schools to attend Catholic schools by increasing the value of available tuition vouchers.

While enrollment in Catholic schools around the state is dropping, Badin and Bishop Fenwick in Middletown are bucking that trend.

Badin’s Class of 2015 just graduated 119 seniors and 145 freshmen just enrolled, Allen said. This year, he said, Badin’s enrollment is expected to be about 540, up from a low of 450 several years ago.

“Students have a lot of options as to where they go to high school,” Allen said. “We do a substantial amount of marketing. We’ll probably touch more than 1,000 potential students in order to fill a particular class. I look at recruiting as a compelling challenge – with a winning outcome for a student who chooses to come to Badin.”

Robin Blank, development specialist at Fenwick, said the school has seen an increased enrollment of 11 percent since the 2005-06 school year when there were 500 students.

“Choice has created greater competition and interestingly, Catholic schools are strongest in areas where public schools are the strongest,” she said.

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