NJ’s First Virtual Charter School a Screen Test for Online Learning

Despite questions over funding, enrollments pour in for K-10 virtual classrooms

New Jersey’s first comprehensive charter school to hold all of its classes online is beginning to enroll students from across the state for next fall, even as questions persist to how exactly the new breed of schools will operate and be funded.

The New Jersey Virtual Academy Charter School (NJVACS), operating under contract with the for-profit online education company, K12 Inc., has begun advertising its New Jersey program through traditional press releases, email blasts and informational events.

After just a week of accepting names, it had enrolled more than 300 students, said school officials, who did not rule out that demand could outnumber seats and a lottery may be needed. The school seeks to enroll 850 for its first year, kindergarten through 10th grade.

Based out of Newark and led by a board with close ties to one of that city’s best known charter schools, NJVACS will provide instruction almost entirely online, with students working with teachers who are potentially hundreds of miles away.

Students will be from throughout the state, with a half-dozen “learning centers” yet to be located as hubs for extra services such as counseling.

Along with a second virtual charter set to open in the fall, it will mark New Jersey’s first big step into full-time online schooling, part of a wave that has become more commonplace in other states.

It will also mark New Jersey’s first real taste of the burgeoning online education industry, with K12 Inc. the largest such business in the country, with schools now in 30 states and Washington, D.C.

A second online charter school — with the similar name of NJ Virtual Charter School — is also slated to open next fall out of Monmouth-Ocean Special Services Commission, but it will focus on at-risk teens and dropouts by offering specific programs to help them recover credits and complete high school. It will also use K12 curriculum.

K12 has drawn its share of critics, claiming its academic results are, at best, mediocre and it is more intent on efficiency than educational quality. It was subject the of a scathing critique in The New York Times in December that, in turn, led to an investor lawsuit claiming it was not living up to its business objectives, let alone educational ones.

The company has been aggressive in trying to burnish its image, and one of its top executives this weekend maintained that K12 will bring valuable new opportunities to New Jersey for students who are not succeeding in traditional settings for any host of reasons.

“There is usually this preconception of what it will be, but by and large, its student body will look very much like the demographics of New Jersey as a whole,” said Peter Stewart, K12’s senior vice president for school development.

And despite the criticism, Stewart maintained K12’s students in other states have generally done well against comparable peers.

“We often get kids coming in two or three grade levels behind — that’s why they are coming to us,” he said. “When you show them against match pairs and by their progress, I think you’d see we’ve done pretty well.”

The company has only begun its marketing in New Jersey, Stewart said, with plans in the works for anything from open houses to bus advertising. An open house was held last week at a Newark hotel, drawing about six families.

K12 may be expanding in New Jersey even further, with talks underway to operate two more schools in Newark, he said.

Still, whether its K12 or any other program, some questions have risen to exactly how online schools will be funded and monitored in the state. The two approved schools technically do not have their final charters yet from the state, something that will come this summer once they meet final requirements, including enrollment of 90 percent of their projected students.

New Jersey’s acting education commissioner, Chris Cerf, said earlier this month in testimony before the state Senate’s budget committee that he was still reviewing the statutory and regulatory requirements for schools that were barely envisioned when the state’s charter law was enacted 15 years ago.

“I am in the process of evaluating the laws and regulations,” Cerf testified. “I cannot say that definitively they will open. They propose a number of interesting questions.”

Cerf last week would not elaborate on his comments, and a department spokesman said only that all charter school applicants go through a final review process before receiving their charters and being permitted to open.

“By July 15, the commissioner makes final determinations and grants a final charter for a school to open,” said Justin Barra, the department’s communications director. “At this point, no approved applicant has been granted a final charter to open in September until it goes through that process.”

But the issue has been a delicate one for both charter advocates and critics, as there is little in the existing law that accommodates virtual schools. State Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex) has been among those calling for a rewrite of the law that would place some specific provisions for online schooling.

Cerf’s comments caught leaders of both online schools by surprise, as they said they have been in frequent contact with the department since their application was first approved, including regular “boot camps” for all new charter schools.

“We still have our meeting with them at the end of the month, but every indication from meetings and materials is we are on course to open in the fall,” said Tim Nogueira, superintendent of the Monmouth-Ocean commission that is launching the online high school charter.

Stewart, the K12 vice president, said his company’s lawyers also reviewed the legal issues. “We feel the questions have been addressed, but maybe the state is still thinking about this,” he said.

One lingering question for both schools is how they will be funded, with charters now receiving from local districts the equivalent of 90 percent of per pupil costs for every resident student who enrolls.

As the host district for the Virtual Academy Charter School, Newark Public Schools has had to set aside $10.8 million in its fiscal 2013 budget for the new virtual academy, state officials said, although that number is sure to come down when actual Newark students are counted in the program.

But whichever district pays the cost, the estimated $13,000 per student is still high for a program that K12 Inc. said costs no more than $10,000 in other states. Stewart said the main difference will be the new learning centers spread throughout New Jersey, something K12 has not done in other states.

“New Jersey does provide more funds than most, but the application has a more blended component than most,” he said.

The new program has close ties to Robert Treat Charter School in Newark. While not formally an extension of that charter school — founded by Newark political leader Steve Adubato — the president of the new charter school’s board will be Michael Pallante, the former longtime principal of Robert Treat. Its secretary is Sharon Brennan, a program manager at Robert Treat school. The new school’s current headquarters is also located in Robert Treat’s elementary school.

Pallante said he first got interested in online learning programs several years ago and visited K12 at its Virginia headquarters.

“It’s a good operation, they’ve obviously done this awhile,” he said of K12. “Their curriculum is strong, they have a lot of supplemental stuff. It’s good, relevant materials.”

Pallante said he recognizes this is a foreign and sometimes controversial concept for many in New Jersey, and he is learning more about it himself. He said it would not work for every family, especially with its requirements that adults be heavily involved in the home in proctoring and assisting the children while online.

He said its greatest value would be for disaffected students and families, not just those who have gotten in trouble but those who felt uncomfortable or even unsafe in traditional schools.

“They just lost interest, and ended up dropping out,” he said.

“Still, I expect people to ask questions about it,” Pallante said of the program as a whole. “They should be, that’s a good thing.”

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