A rural school turns to digital education. Is it a devil’s bargain?

It might seem odd for a tiny rural school nestled here between huge tracts of farmland to have a digital school with more than 700 students who live across the state. But, as school board vice president Christa Ellis explained, the district was in debt and out of options.

For years, members of the public argued whether to shutter the school or keep it open. Board meetings moved to the cafeteria to accommodate interested locals, and Harshman said there are some friends she doesn’t speak to anymore because of how heated those discussions became.

Some like Ellis worried closing the school would mean the end of the nearby communities — most so small they don’t have a single stoplight — and force kids to travel farther to larger schools.

A rural school turns to digital education. Is it a devil’s bargain?
A rural school turns to digital education. Is it a devil’s bargain?

“When you eliminate the school, we’ve seen what happens to these small towns,” said Ellis. “Those towns have died over the years. We didn’t want our entire township and [nearby townships] to die. We didn’t want our community to die.”

So last summer the school board decided to partner with the private education corporation known as K12 Inc. — which had a 2017 revenue that exceeded $875 million — to open a public virtual school called Indiana Digital Learning School. It has grown Union’s enrollment from 256 students in 2016-17 to 937 students in 2017-18, according to Indiana’s Department of Education.

And in Indiana, where the state allocates $5,273 to each student, that’s millions of taxpayer dollars flowing to Modoc.

But much of that money appears to flow right back out, according to the contract between Union School Corp. and K12 Inc. Union only retains 5 percent of those dollars, while K12 takes 95 percent to operate the school and add to their bottom line.

A devil’s bargain?

K12 Inc. called Union’s Superintendent Allen Hayne in the summer of 2017 after he interviewed for a job at their organization — a post he did not receive — and approached him with the idea of a large digital school.

Prior to that, the school district’s most profitable move was to add an international program that brought in kids from China for $18,000 a pop, and they even reached out to the nearby Amish community, adding a total of 14 Amish students. Other ideas included advertising the school at a nearby town’s Walmart or getting a billboard.

“We’ve almost kind of been forced to run our school more like a business in terms of marketing ourselves and bringing in new kids to stay afloat,” admitted Hayne, who served as superintendent and high school principal simultaneously. “And we just found an out-of-the-box idea that really works for us and has generated enough kids and interest to keep us open.”

Three weeks after the school board approved the decision to partner with K12 and just about 12 days before the start of the school year, Union appointed Elizabeth Sliger as the head of Indiana Digital Learning School (INDLS), who previously worked for K12 in Dayton, Ohio, and remains a company employee.

Image: Allen Hayne
Allen Hayne, Superintendent of Union School Corp. in Modoc, Indiana on May 9, 2018.Maddie McGarvey / for NBC News

The entire digital school operates with five full-time employees who are split between two former classrooms that K12 rents from Union for $1,200 a month. It has 21 teachers on staff, holds around 66 classes each day, and has an enrollment capped this past year at 740 students by the school board because they wouldn’t receive additional funding from the state if they added more students after October.

Teachers work out of their homes and are hired and fired by K12, so they don’t receive the same retirement benefits as public school teachers. Diane Smith, who lives outside of Columbus, Indiana, came to INDLS after she quit her public school job when her mother was sick. She said she enjoys the work.

“I have about 10 minutes before each class and since they’re all the same, the prep time is pretty easy. All of the curriculum they have here meets state standards, so I feel pretty comfortable with it,” said Smith, who teaches a computer course via a headset and a laptop — often with one of her three Yorkshire terriers on her lap.

Hundreds of Indiana kids are currently on a waiting list for enrollment in INDLS, and many intrigued families attended the numerous “EnRolling Skate Events” K12 put on throughout the state during the month of May. Nearly 40 people registered for the event in Bloomington, Indiana, and children and parents met, skated and chatted about school as pop music blared.

Now Union and INDLS project they’ll have more than a thousand virtual students next year after they release their cap.

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