Have you seen the billboards that have sprung up alongside the highways that transect Minneapolis, Richfield and Bloomington promoting Flex Academy, a new school slated to open next fall?
Depending on whom you ask, the signs signal the imminent privatization of public education, an unfair marketing advantage or an innovation that could catapult schools into the new millennium.
When fully enrolled, Flex Academy will be a public charter serving 525 students in grades 6-12 in a “blended learning” environment. Students will show up to school in Richfield where they will work online at their own pace. Many of the school’s features — from the digital curriculum to the template for its website — are provided by a publicly traded corporation, K12 Inc.
Excitement — and raised eyebrows
The concept is one that excites most proponents of innovation in education: Combining technology that allows lessons to be personalized for each student with a 19-to-one student-teacher ratio that allows plenty of supportive face-time. The local names associated with the school are well-respected educators and scholars.
But the other novelty has eyebrows raised. Some of the tax dollars that will follow Twin Cities students to the school will go to pay for billboards, recruiters and marketers. Some will find their way into the pockets of corporate stockholders.
Like other Minnesota charters, Flex Academy is a nonprofit governed by an independent school board. Board members may choose to augment K12’s offerings or not use them at all. But that doesn’t seem likely: The proposal to create the school was made by a K12 vice president who founded the first two Flex academies, both located in California’s Bay Area.
The model — local teachers, aides and administrators working closely with a company that provides “turnkey” management and academic services — is on the rise in other parts of the country. But it’s new to the Twin Cities, where most charter proponents have eschewed bringing profit into the picture.
Indeed, with a few exceptions Minnesota has not even seen the arrival of the nonprofit charter management organizations many states court because their economies of scale allow them to hit the ground running and to use network resources for recruitment, teacher professional development and other things that bedevil cash-strapped stand-alone start-ups.
The school’s charter authorizer, Innovative Quality Schools (IQS), is not troubled by Flex’s contract with K12. The group authorizes the very successful Duluth Edison Charter Schools, an 18-year-old program that contracts with the privately held for-profit Edison Learning.
“We sometimes think our current schools are not for-profit,” observes Bob Wedl, a former state education commissioner, a partner at the think tank Education Evolving and IQS’ liaison to Flex. “Houghton-Mifflin, IBM — lots of places sell stuff to schools.”
IQS is more interested in what’s been termed “hybrid disruption.”
“There are any number of things we were really interested in with this model,” Wedl explains. “The curriculum is online. That enables students to move at their own pace. Teachers can then guide students who need more support.”
Veteran Minneapolis teacher and principal Greg Gentle will lead the new program. He was in the process of exploring opening a blended learning school in 2012, the year San Francisco Flex Academy posted the largest gains in its district. When he learned the organization was trying to open a school here, he went to visit the California one.
“I was definitely skeptical,” he says. “I was a teacher in Minneapolis Public Schools when Edison came and went and I understand people’s concerns about public dollars and for-profit entities in public education. But don’t forget that Edison now has a very successful school in Duluth. It can work.”
And it’s easier than going it alone, Gentle says. “I worked with new charter schools in the past that really struggled because they didn’t have the kind of financial support they needed,” he says. “We have great support including strong curriculum and in the area of operations. Operations is hard for start-ups. We are much better positioned for a strong foundation to launch Flex Academy because of relationship with K12.”
LRN on NYSE and NASDAQ
K12 enrolls more pupils — 137,000, including some in schools that buy only its curriculum — than any other education management organization (EMO) in the country. Its stock is listed on the New York Stock Exchange and the NASDAQ as LRN.
In 2014 revenue topped $800 million, the lion’s share from public schools where the corporation provides “primary administrative oversight” as well as digital curriculum. “Revenue per enrollment” in those schools — the vast majority low-overhead online only ventures — rose almost 8 percent over 2013 to $3,416.
The corporation is active on the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a secretive membership organization that brings big business and state lawmakers together to craft and share model legislation. The expansion of digital schooling is on the group’s wish list.
After a 2011 New York Times investigation found students at an online-only K12 school lagging in proficiency and dropping out in large numbers, shareholders filed a class-action suit against K12. Controversies attended the company’s virtual schools in Florida, Ohio, Tennessee and Colorado, among other places.
Indeed, K12’s public profile — and stock prices — have taken such a beating in recent years that the corporation has considered spinning off its blended learning business into a wholly owned subsidiary.
A 2012 analysis by USA Today estimated that the company spent $21.5 million on advertising — including ads aimed at kids run on the Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon and social networking sites for teens — during the first eight months of the year.
Operates 4 online-only schools in MN
The corporation operates four online-only schools in Minnesota. Virtual schools typically post lower test scores than other schools because they attract many students who did not thrive in regular classrooms. Still, test scores at the established K12 online partner schools range from middling to rock-bottom.
The Flex model differs in a number of important ways from the programs that have made K12 a controversial presence in public education. For starters, students will spend time in a physical school with teachers. If they go to school alone at home, students in online-only schools often are able to log in and check out.
Michael Horn is the executive director of the Clayton Christensen Institute, a Bay Area think tank focused on disruptive innovation, and a co-author of the widely lauded book “Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.”
A for-profit partner can bring tremendous resources to a school, he says. The issue in his view is whether it is able to deliver on its promises.
“The big thing is for Minnesota and the charter authorizer to be really clear about what outcomes they want to see,” he says. “The state has to hold their feet to the fire.”
A Flex program in Silicon Valley is too new to have state ratings. The 5-year-old San Francisco Flex Academy has shown steady growth in reading, history and social sciences. About half of students pass those state-mandated tests, the same percentage as California as a whole. However, just 8 percent of students pass the math exam, versus 50 percent statewide.
California evaluates schools using a formula that’s somewhat like Minnesota’s Multiple Measurements Ratings, which takes into account a school’s growth, poverty level and other factors. California’s goal is for schools to score 800 or higher on its Academic Performance Index. Flex San Francisco scored 647 in 2012 and 733 in 2013.
IQS responsible for performance
Several years ago Minnesota tightened its charter accountability laws. Authorizers like IQS are now responsible for the performance of schools in their portfolio, which must undergo a renewal process every five years.
IQS’ agreement with Flex contains a series of specific goals the school must meet for renewal. Because it expects to enroll many students who start out below grade level, the agreement requires students who have been at Flex for less than three years to show 1.2 years growth per year.
Overall, in the school’s first year 60 percent of students must pass state math tests and 50 percent reading tests. The percentages rise every year to 75 percent and 60 percent, respectively, in the 2018-2019 school year.
In year one, those targets match proficiency rates in Bloomington Public Schools and considerably outpace district-wide averages in Richfield and Minneapolis.
IQS will require those targets to be met, says Wedl. But in fact the authorizer hopes to see more. Its mission is to authorize schools in the “redesign sector” that feature innovations such as teacher-leadership, digital platforms and student autonomy.
Another school in the authorizer’s portfolio, the 2-year-old Venture Academy, is using a different model of hybrid disruption and is achieving outsized results. Many of its online resources, such as the much-touted Kahn Academy, are free.
In addition to gathering good reviews of K12’s curriculum from traditional Minnesota school districts that use it, IQS believes the model has potential to redesign high school to be 10-14, versus 9-12. Flex will bridge this gap in part by featuring more seat time than its traditional neighbors.
“With the K12 piece, they are gearing up for considerably more time to students can get (state academic) standards met so they can access college in the schools,” says Wedl. “Because of the longer year and day they will be ready for full-time post-secondary by grade 11.”
And while IQS is not troubled by Flex’s relationship to K12, it takes very seriously its role as fiscal overseer. “We certainly want to make sure no one is walking out the door with money that’s not being well spent,” says Wedl. “We do provide oversight of the financial management.”
‘Consistently enrolling families’
Families are interested, says Gentle. “We have a long way to go, but we are consistently enrolling families each week,” he says. “I am very optimistic that as more families understand how we will provide a personalized learning experience, we will gain even more traction. We will also have a facility to showcase in June.”
All of which would have been much more difficult without a partner with deep pockets, he adds. “We need new approaches to teaching and learning that are more adaptive to individual students’ needs,” says Gentle. “Some school districts are slowly making progress in transforming classrooms to do so. But the pace is too slow and kids shouldn’t have to wait for adults to get comfortable with it. We need new kinds of schools now.”
The test, of course, will be what happens when Flex opens, he concludes. “I invite anyone — skeptics, critics, supporters — to come and see us and to talk to me, to the board, to our staff and eventually to our families and our students,” he says. “Ask the hard questions but don’t make up your minds without seeing what this school can offer and what it can do for our kids.”