ANITA — This town of less than 1,000 about 65 miles west of Des Moines in southwestern Cass County seems an unlikely spot for one of Iowa’s fastest-growing school systems.
There’s the new building — a metal-sided multi-purpose structure that could just as easily house a veterinary office or an implement store as anything else — with enough parking space for maybe 10 vehicles depending on how you pack them.
There’s no playground, no bus stop, no evidence that 330 Iowa schoolchildren consider this their school, even though they might never step through its front door.
Iowa Connections Academy opened for business in Anita in the fall of 2012. Iowa Virtual Academy did the same in Guttenberg and has 190 students. Both are run by out-of-state education corporations that took advantage of Iowa’s open enrollment law, reliable communication technology and a governor eager to shake up the state’s education system.
Now, with a March 1 deadline to open enroll for the 2014-15 school year, both schools are in the midst of heavy student-recruitment campaigns.
“We consider ourselves an Iowa school,” Connections Academy Principal James Brauer said during a tour of the Anita school building last week. “We will do everything the Iowa codes indicate are the expectations of an Iowa school. Even with our own company, I’ve made it very, very clear, we are more of an Iowa school more than we are a (Connections Academy) school.”
Meanwhile, the first year’s test scores have come out, and some lawmakers are pushing for more access for online school companies.
Inside the school
“OK, OK, very good,” Christina Haas says encouragingly into the speaker. She’s sitting in an office chair set in a high-walled cubicle looking at a pair of computer monitors. On the other end of the line is one of her students from somewhere in Iowa — Haas can’t share any identifying characteristics of the child lest she run afoul of state privacy laws — who is working through a lesson.
Haas is the newest member of the Connections Academy staff, which includes two elementary teachers, six middle and high school teachers and six adjunct teachers. Some work from home; others, including Haas, typically make the trek to the Connections Academy building. Connections Academy schools are a division of the Pearson curriculum and testing company. A company called K12 oversees the Iowa Virtual Academy.
Haas joined the school in October after working in “an early intervention setting” in Pennsylvania. She likes the individual attention she says this setup allows her to give to her students.
“I really feel like there’s a good relationship between the teachers and the students, even one that’s stronger than what you’d see in a brick-and-mortar setting, because they are able to work directly with me,” she said. “Unfortunately, there’s not always the same connection between peers, but that’s something we really work to build.”
Connections Academy gives Baurer the ability to track much of what Haas and the other teachers do during the work day. He can monitor how much time Haas spends talking with students live and how much she messages each day. Student worksheets, contacts-per-teacher and the speed at which they move through lessons are all available to him with a few keystrokes.
Students at Iowa Connections Academy did, on average, better than their peers on state standardized tests in 2012-13. Students at Iowa Virtual Academy did slightly worse than their statewide counterparts that same school year.
Those scores were among the data the Iowa Department of Education released in its first annual report on Iowa’s two virtual schools in late January. The report, like the requirement that online schools partner with existing school districts, enrollment caps and other regulations, were imposed by the General Assembly when it decided the two schools would take part in the state’s three-year pilot program for online schools.
“I would tell them not to feel bad that you didn’t reach what you set out to do because we’re only talking about one year of data,” said Tammy Wawro, president of the Iowa State Education Association when asked about the Department of Education report.
Wawro is more concerned about survey results that show roughly 8 percent of the online schools’ 4th through 12th graders and 12 percent of the kindergarten through 3rd graders said they didn’t know or weren’t sure how well they were doing in their classes.
She said there’s “absolutely a role for a public school online academy,” but she’s not convinced the state’s current model is it.
“I think we all have a right to be concerned,” she said.
Amanda Brezina, a music teacher for Iowa Virtual Academy who has her two school-age children enrolled in the school, said the model is exactly what her family wanted. She’s a former traditional public school teacher who is working toward her doctorate in education. She likes that Iowa Virtual Academy has a curriculum that has to meet state standards and characterized its offerings as “definitely rigorous.”
“Children aren’t just sitting in front of a computer all day,” she said. “There are online components, there are online classes, but it’s not just online.”
Brezina told lawmakers just as much last week during a subcommittee hearing on House Study Bill 610. The bill would, among other things, expand the opportunities for private companies like Connections and K12 to operate in the state by allowing them to partner with charter schools or set up on their own.
Currently, the online companies pay a $50,000 base fee to their host districts and provide a small percentage of the per-pupil state aid — $6,121 for fiscal year 2014 — to the home district as well.
“I always want to provide as many options for parents as I can, and I feel the online program serves one of those options for parents,” said state Rep. Ron Jorgensen, R-Sioux City, who serves as chairman of the House Education Committee and introduced the bill last week.
He said the bill needs some more work before it’s ready to move. The Iowa Association of School Boards, the Iowa State Education Association and the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa Action Fund are among the groups registered against it. StudentsFirst, an education reform group, is registered for it.
“This legislation takes (online education) to the next step,” he said. “If we do nothing right now and don’t have a plan in place when the three years is over, it will just fizzle out.”
Gov. Terry Branstad’s administration, which pushed online education as part of the 2012 education reform package, took a wait-and-see position on the bill.
“Since we are in the second year of the three-year pilot, we want to wait until the end of the third year to assess how the two programs worked,” Linda Fandel, Branstad’s special adviser on education wrote in an email.
Brauer, likewise, didn’t want to comment on the bill, but, he noted, Connections Academy has more inquires now than it did at the same time last year. He’s a former special education teacher and assistant principal who worked in a few Kansas school districts before going to work in Anita, which is his wife’s hometown.
It’s a point of pride that his students beat the state averages last school year. The 2013-14 test results are coming in now, and Brauer said, the scores compare favorably again.
But, he stressed, while online education works well for some children, it’s not for every child.
His children, the oldest of whom will enter school in a couple years, included.
“We know that for a student to attend an online model, there has to be a learning coach, a caretaker, a parent that’s available at home, especially at those elementary ages,” he said. “Because of that and because we still want to be great parents, but we also have professional goals, I don’t know if we could.”