K-12 Virtual Charters See Wave in Enrollment

Oregon's virtual K-12 charters saw a surge in enrollment in 2020-21 — and insiders don't think the trend is waning.

Enrollment at public virtual schools surged upward last year — and insiders say it’s likely to continue.

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Amy Guy’s oldest son, Alexander, started attending school online in eighth grade. He starts his senior year this fall, and Guy says he chose to continue studying at Oregon Charter Academy.

“Some students engage really well with technology, for whatever reason,” Guy says. “We decided to try online for our son. There were some needs of his that were not being met in public schools.”

Her other two children — Olivia, who starts her junior year of high school this fall, and Sarah, who is in sixth grade — are also students at OCA, though they have both attended in-person schools in the past.

Guy and her family live in Winston, Ore., near Roseburg, where she is a public school teacher. But OCA is run by the Santiam Canyon School District in Linn County.

During the 2020-21 school year, 4,711 students were enrolled at the school, versus 3,849 the year before.

There are 131 charter schools in the state of Oregon, 19 of which operate exclusively online. Charters across the state saw an overall uptick in enrollment of 7,256 students last year — 37,416 versus 30,160 the year before, according to data released by the Oregon Department of Education (ODE).

And much of that growth was at virtual charters, which enrolled 7,664 more students in 2020-21 than they did in 2019-20, for a total of 21,705 enrolled in online charters last year.

By contrast, overall enrollment at public schools across the state was down 3.73% in 2020-21, with 560,917 students in public schools last year and 582,661 the year before.

Larger districts lost students: Portland Public Schools enrolled 46,924 last year, down from 48,559 the year before. The Bend-La Pine Administrative School District went from 18,647 to 17,542 kids, and enrollment in the Salem-Keizer School District went from 41,770 to 39,892.

And the loss would likely have been greater but for a 2011 law that says Oregon public school districts that have more than 3% of students enrolled in out-of-district virtual public charter schools can deny transfers if they provide other online options.

In August 2020, the Salem Statesman-Journal reported that 10 Oregon school districts had hit the cap. They included the Banks, Greater Albany and Pendleton school districts.

If a family’s request to transfer enrollment is denied, they can file an appeal. Tricia Powell, who serves as board president of the Oregon Virtual Public Schools Alliance, says her organization helped multiple parents file appeals with the state.

“During COVID, we heard from a lot of families that were concerned. They have children who are immunocompromised or have other needs that weren’t being met,” Powell says.

Part of the appeal of virtual charters is that they’ve been in the game longer: The oldest, West Lane Technology Learning Center, was established in 2003. By contrast, mainstream public schools had to learn how to provide online education in real time last spring.

Melissa Hausmann is head of school at three Oregon virtual charters: Cascade Virtual Academy, Insight School of Oregon-Painted Hills and Destinations Career Academy of Oregon. All three schools are sponsored by the Mitchell School District, and all saw an uptick in enrollment, with enrollment at CVA swelling from 121 to 673. Hausmann says many of the parents she’s spoken to were drawn to schools that focus on online learning exclusively.

“Teaching in the brick-and-mortar setting and teaching virtually are two very different ball games,” she says. “You have to learn how to be very engaging — almost the obstacle — in the way that you talk to students and capture their attention. They have to want to log in to the computer, because it’s a very different setting for them to sit down and learn virtually.”

Teacher-to-student ratios at the three schools are high, though: Hausmann says the ratio is one teacher to 50 students for elementary, one to 175 for middle school and one to 200 for high school, though “we aim to keep math and ELA lower than the max school-wide ratios.”

But graduation rates went up along with enrollment, from 29% to 47% for on-time graduates, Hausmann says.

The ODE was not able to provide an estimate of the number of K-12 students likely to enroll in virtual schools in the fall of 2021. But it seems likely interest in online charters will remain high this year. As this issue went to press, COVID-19’s delta variant was surging across the state and country, hitting unvaccinated populations — including kids — hard.

Vaccine trials for children between ages 3 and 12 were underway, with experts predicting emergency-use authorization by the end of the calendar year — but not in time for the start of school. As of mid-August, Oregon brick-and-mortar schools were set to resume in-person instruction with a mask mandate in the fall.

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While the pandemic is not yet in the rear-view, it’s unclear what will happen to online schools — and their supporting districts — once it is.

Funding flows to schools from the state through their sponsoring districts, though charters receive 80% of the reimbursement traditional schools do, according to Hausmann.

Some districts that sponsor virtual charters saw significant surges in enrollment: Mitchell School District, which sponsors CVA, had 533 students in 2019-20 and more than twicethat — 1,285 — in 2020-21.

So far, Hausmann says, she has not seen an exodus of families back to brick-and-mortar schools.

And some families — like Guy’s andPowell’s — loved online learning well before the pandemic began. They plan to stick with it.

“We were hooked, and we’ve just never looked back since,” Guy says.