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NC virtual charter schools continue to have poor performance yet high demand

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Allison Shelley
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EDUimages / http://ow.ly/nlJA50L2zSu
A student takes notes during history class.

North Carolina’s two virtual charter schools have been allowed to expand their enrollment in recent years, despite continually poor student outcomes. That's one of the major themes the State Board of Education heard during an annual report on the schools Wednesday.

More than 5,700 North Carolina students attended one of the two virtual charter schools last year. NC Cyber Academy and NC Virtual Academy each brought in hundreds more students after a provision in a COVID-19 relief bill allowed them to increase their enrollment.

The two schools have been pilot projects since fall 2015, and received $42 million in state funds last fiscal year. The virtual charter schools are distinct from the NC Virtual Public School, a state-run online program that offers specific courses but is not designed to provide full-time instruction.

In their five years of operation, both virtual charter schools have been consistently given a D-score on North Carolina's school report cards based on their students' test scores. The two schools have failed to “meet growth” on standardized tests and have been labeled continually low-performing, as students lag behind the state average for grade level proficiency.

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NC Department of Public Instruction
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NC virtual charter 1.JPG
NC Department of Public Instruction
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The two schools serve a higher percentage of economically disadvantaged students than traditional public schools. The schools also have large waitlists and in previous years have received state waivers to increase their enrollment.

“As of last week, … Cyber Academy had 2,575 students enrolled, and they are reporting a waitlist of 678 students. Virtual Academy has 3,013 students, and they are reporting a waitlist of 2,878 students,” the Office of Charter Schools’ Director Ashley Baquero reported to the state board.

"That number shocked me," NC Teacher of the Year Leah Carper said of the waitlist. "It seems like we need more opportunities ... when we can prove the model is working well, for which students, and how to make it work better."

Each year, more than a thousand students have also withdrawn after starting to attend one of the virtual charter schools.

“The schools report that the majority of withdrawals are for students that indicate that the program just was not what they expected or did not meet their needs,” Baquero said.

State laws have extended the virtual charter schools' operations through 2025. After that, the state office of charter schools is recommending no new amendments to the legislation. Without any changes to current law, after 2025 the schools will be subject to the same renewal process as other charter schools.

That oversight process can lead to a charter school being closed if it fails to meet certain criteria. The two virtual schools are not currently meeting the standards for student performance, due to their students’ recurring low performance on state standardized tests.

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email: lschlemmer@wunc.org
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