The graduation rate of the Leon County School District has soared in the past five years, thanks largely to the use of online courses. School district officials have worked hard to get students to the finish line—offering a number of pathways. But some of those methods are under scrutiny.
A Graduation Story
Talasia Kelley graduated this summer from the Leon County School district, a Florida diploma in hand. But it wasn’t an easy task. She crossed two states, and four high schools during her journey to graduation.
"I was at Rickards for my ninth through 10th grade year, then I transferred to Sail," she explains. " But in the midst of that time, I went back to my hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. And I got back on track, but when I came back down (to Tallahassee), I fell off.”
When she came back to Tallahassee, she was distracted.
“I wanted to be like my friends and skip school, not do my work and kept pushing it back and back and back.”
Kelley was so far behind, she had to hurry to catch up in order to make her graduation date. Kelly went to Leon County's Success Academy, a school that blends online learning with in-person instruction to help students catch up when they’ve fallen behind. She worked with her teachers, who met with her daily and set goals. And there are a lot of those students:
“We had a student who was from Rickards, and we worked with him, and he was one of the students who didn’t finish by that May graduation date but he finished over the summer," says Leon County Virtual School Principal, Jessica Lowe.
“And when he came to pick up his diploma, he said, ‘we’re going out to dinner at Arby’s."
She says the online options are life-savers for kids who otherwise, wouldn’t graduate. Arby's was the student's way of celebrating his achievement. It was big expense for his family. Lowe says she put her head on her desk, and cried.
A multitude of online programs
There are many different online providers used by the Leon County School District. They include programs from Pasco County’s virtual school, the long-standing Florida Virtual School and a program called Edmentum. The district has spent nearly $3 million on such programs within the past five years, less than one percent of the budget for the upcoming school year.
Florida law requires students take an online course in order to graduate. Leon County several providers. And Superintendent Jackie Pons thinks it’s a good thing.
“Everybody doesn’t learn the same way," he says. "Some people feel its not the same as being in the classroom all year, but if you look at what’s going on at the university level, a lot of students are taking virtual classes and it’s the way of the future, like our own Leon Virtual school.”
Not everyone agrees.
“It’s just not the same education because they get an English credit in three to four weeks instead of a year. So we’re paying $1,300 to get in the school, and we’re giving them a diploma from that school. It’s a diploma mill is what it is," says former Lively Technical School Principal Woody Hildebrandt. He and five other candidates are trying to unseat Pons this election cycle.
District Disclaims EdOptions Academy
Hildebrandt specifically referring to a program called Ed Options. Like the others it lets kids make up classes they failed, but it also offers a separate program where kids who couldn’t pass Florida’s mandatory graduation tests can earn a diploma. Students withdraw from the district and enroll in what amounts to an online private school. It’s called Ed Options Academy. Students are no longer counted in a district’s graduation rate. And the district doesn’t pay for them. On its website, the company takes credit for a 25 percent bump in the Rickards High School graduation rate. But Leon Virtual’s Lowe says the district is not, nor has it ever used the private Academy option offered by the program.
“I think first and foremost, you have to take into account the marketing literature is going to be favorable to that company. That’s just marketing literature," she says. "The second thing is, we did several interventions. We hired a district graduation coast. We built blending learning classes. We cleaned up our withdrawal data."
Still the district doesn’t track kids once they have withdrawn. So there’s no way of telling whether the district’s 87 percent graduation rate is inflated.
Online Classes: Pathways To Success Or ShortCut?
Lowe says students in Leon Schools who use the online courses are earning Leon School District Diplomas. And she argues, just look at the numbers. Lowe claims if schools were cheating, the number of kids graduating would be lower, but the rate, would still be high. And that’s not the case. Sixteen other counties have also used EdOptions. But the question remains, are students learning? A 2012 study from the Center for Public Education revealed uncertainty about online remediation and course recovery programs. In April the American Institutes for Research cast further doubt on whether students really learn in the programs. But the state of Florida is relying heavily on online education. And so is the district. Leon’s Scotty Crowe, believes it is working for students who five, even 10 years ago, would have been dropouts.
“They would have had very few doors open to them, fewer opportunities in life," says Leon County Schools' Scotty Crowe. He heads the division of teaching and learning.
Without a high school diploma, students cannot go to college. Their financial aid options are limited at community college. It’s required for military service and even low-wage jobs. And district officials say they won't apologize for helping kids earn legitimate diplomas, even as research into the particular method casts doubt on its effectiveness.