A new era for alternative education
Interest in independent study and virtual academies brought on by pandemic
By Heather Kemp

istance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic uprooted the decades’ long status quo of in-person instruction and opened families’ eyes to alternative education formats. Once thought of as continuation schools for students who didn’t fare well in traditional settings, alternative education has expanded to acknowledge the fact that “one size doesn’t fit all.”

Whether it is due to newfound interest in remote instruction, because they are not quite ready to return full time to physical classrooms as new variants continue to emerge, or because of vaccine hesitancy, more K–12 learners are enrolling in independent study and virtual academies.

“We have a whole generation of students and parents who saw the pros and cons of virtual learning. I have two teenagers and there were parts of it that were great and there were parts that were very challenging,” said Davis Joint Unified School District Interim Superintendent Matt Best. “I think that as we think about our path forward with this generation of students and future generations, finding the best of those practices in a system that doesn’t change all that much over time is going to be really critical because the students evolved during this pandemic.”

Principal Rob Kinder
“…when I log on, [teachers] are really engaging the kids. There‘s emotion and care. They have been able to pull off what you see in a physical classroom but at a distance—and that‘s not easy to do.”

Best’s district, the Davis School for Independent Study (DSIS) has been operating for roughly 30 years, offering home school and traditional and hybrid independent study prior to the public health crisis.

This academic year, DJUSD opened its Virtual Academy for grades K-12 under Principal Rob Kinder, who is no stranger to innovation. Prior to his work in Davis, which includes the launch of the hybrid model, Kinder worked at a charter school in Natomas and helped to start a blended instruction program there.

“We had a vision that we identified early on with a small team that I assembled here,” Kinder said. “Essentially, we did two virtual academies, K-6 and 7-12. We wanted more synchronous time for the younger kids and more flexibility for the older kids … We also wanted to create enrichment.”

Elementary students attend school in person for three hours in the morning. The afternoon features targeted, small group meetings based off assessment data, Kinder said. Additionally, there are regular one-on-one meeting with families and eight hours of enrichment opportunities available per week, including Spanish, French and art classes.

“The secondary program we designed around the students that we thought really appreciated distance learning,” Kinder said. The teens have flexibility to do things like take community college courses and attend virtual office hours for services like counseling and tutoring. Addressing social-emotional needs has also been a priority.

According to Kinder, DSIS’ five-year enrollment data pre-COVID averaged to about 120 students. Last year, the average was around 225 and this year numbers have hovered between 250 and 310.

Knowing there would be families not ready or interested in returning to campuses in spring 2021, the district made an early commitment to starting the Virtual Academy and began planning for staffing needs. This has allowed them to avoid the shortages many schools and local educational agencies are having.

“It’s hard to get teachers right now but we were able to recruit and get some really good folks because we tried to target people who actually liked teaching from a distance,” Kinder said. “These teachers, when I log on, they’re really engaging the kids. There’s emotion and care. They have been able to pull off what you see in a physical classroom but at a distance — and that’s not easy to do.”

Dayna Mitchell, assistant superintendent of Educational Services, Azusa USD
“With virtual learning we knew that parents had been our strongest partners and advocates, so part of this work is partnering with families as the students are in independent study.”
It’s easy to assume that most of new enrollees at DSIS are there because of COVID-related reasons, but Kinder said that’s not the case, especially in the older grades. Best noted that the programs have long attracted athletes or those with anxiety, and Kinder mentioned that virtual options can be a good fit for students in the migrant population.

Though virtual schools don’t have a statutory definition in the state, they can be offered by public schools as long as they follow independent study laws in order to collect average daily attendance and earn state apportionment funding.

Ongoing need for online independent study
In October, California Safe Schools for All released data on roughly two-thirds of the state’s school districts. Based on the LEAs’ responses, it was concluded that about 3.8 percent of students were still learning from home for various reasons.

Just because that percentage seems small, doesn’t mean it’s insignificant.

Azusa USD has seen a significant increase in enrollment in its independent study program this year compared to those past, said Dayna Mitchell, assistant superintendent of Educational Services. Of the district’s 7,122 students, 261, or 3.66 percent, are in independent study as of February. That is up a bit from the October report when the district had 3.53 percent of students in independent study. Many of the Southern California district’s students sought out the program due to COVID-related concerns. Another common reason is its flexibility.

Before COVID, the LEA offered independent study for K-12 learners as well as home school. They weren’t popular options, but they were utilized enough to warrant a full-time teacher. Plus, “we like to offer choices for families,” Mitchell said.

In accordance with state guidelines, TK-12 students may participate in the online independent program now at their discretion. If they wish to switch to in person, they can transition within five days.

Additional teachers at the elementary and secondary levels were hired, partially using one-time funding, to provide services for students. Similar to Davis, they committed to the cause early and staffed appropriately.

The teachers plan instruction and can work with students in small groups or individually via Google Meet, providing mentoring as part of the individual attention, Mitchell said. There is access to counseling as well as 24/7 virtual live tutoring for third- through 12th-graders in all subjects through its tutoring platform. The program is also supported by an overall program director and a director of child welfare and attendance.

With many students experiencing loss and isolation, teachers were provided professional development at the beginning of the year focused on social-emotional learning and how it can be infused in lesson planning.

Creating a strong schedule, sticking to it and ensuring opportunities for teachers to collaborate are important components of a successful online independent study program, Mitchell explained.

A highlight of the experience, Mitchell said, is seeing how responsive staff is when working with families.

“Throughout the pandemic and with virtual learning we knew that parents had been our strongest partners and advocates, so part of this work is partnering with families as the students are in independent study,” she said. “There’s lots of communication and we have a very cohesive staff. We work together to help the logistics of the program and it’s been a hands-on approach.”

Mitchell said she isn’t sure how long things will carry on in this format, but that the district is committed to providing families what they ask for. It’s all just a matter of planning.

“We’ll continue to take a look at it and we’re rethinking our independent study program even for post-pandemic,” she said. “Looking at offerings like hybrid and if can we bring in students for small group learning opportunities even with independent study. I think during this time we’ve learned quite a bit, so it’s a chance for us to reimagine our program and create an even better one.”

In nearby Los Angeles USD, where, as of this writing, the district has mandated that students 12 and older be vaccinated to attend in person by fall, officials are preparing to possibly ramp up online learning options as thousands may not be fully vaccinated or wish to remain home. On Feb. 8, the Board of Education approved steps toward establishing as many as six new online schools in 2022–23. The schools would be designated as alternative schools and serve up to 15,000 TK-12 students.

The district’s Chief of Schools David Baca revealed at the meeting that 77 percent of families enrolled now in their City of Angels online independent study program are interested in continuing online next year.

The need for online learning options, at least temporary ones, have continued to be necessary.
The need for online learning options, at least temporary ones, have continued to be necessary.
collage of woman holding light bulb coming out of paper airplane
“Taking this action right now allows us to not just ensure that our academic program is as strong as possible for the students who for legitimate reasons continue to want an online option, but it is about how do we provide that differentiation and those other wraparound supports, social-emotional supports, BSAP (Black Student Achievement Program) supports, STEM and STEAM opportunities,” said board President Kelly Gonez. “Really how do we provide that same enriching and well-rounded education that we expect from our brick-and-mortar schools to the students who will participate in online instruction?”

Elsewhere, the need for online learning options, at least temporary ones, have continued to be necessary. In Hayward USD, a surge in COVID cases in January caused a large number of absent teachers and resulted in a full return to virtual schooling for a week. The district did this despite warnings from Alameda County and state education officials about the risk of losing funding.

Past and future
Before COVID, LEAs did not have to provide independent study offerings for students, but families could still opt in on a short- or long-term basis to meet their students’ needs, if the option was available.

In 2021–22, however, Assembly Bill 130 has required LEAs to offer independent study. In addition to serving a population not ready for or interested in in-person instruction, having a remote solution for students that are in isolation or quarantine has been essential for maintaining educational access and equity and school fiscal stability, State Board of Education Chief Deputy Executive Director Jessica Holmes explained.

“Schools can only earn average daily attendance, and therefore state apportionment, for instruction offered outside of the classroom by following independent study law,” Holmes said.

Schools have had to once again account for ADA for apportionment and requirements for instructional minutes and days that weren’t waived. “In order to provide a mechanism for collecting average daily attendance when learning is happening outside of the classroom, the state used the independent study programs … Additionally, to ensure that large populations of students were not left without direct instruction for long periods of time (which was allowable pursuant to the pre-existing traditional independent study), the state added requirements for live interaction and synchronous instruction, based on grade-level, for students who participated in independent study for 15 days or more,” Holmes said. “The state also required the provision of technology, the use of re-engagement strategies for students enrolled in but not participating in independent study, mandatory interactions with families around the provision of independent study options, and some flexibilities around the timing of getting signed independent study agreements.”

AB 130 created challenges for DSIS, Kinder said, as it placed an “extra level of tedious management,” though they appreciate the state’s “why.” A success, he said, is being able to “essentially have the same ADA in our virtual programs that we do at our in-person programs,” he said.

Some other difficulties that LEAs have reported, according to Holmes, are 1) having parents sign and return agreements for independent study; 2) meeting live interaction and synchronous instruction requirements; 3) problems collecting students’ work to receive ADA credit; and 4) the ability to track students if they go in and out of independent study, particularly if they’ve had to quarantine multiple times.

“While changes to independent study requirements are not in the purview of the State Board of Education (they require legislative changes), the Administration has proposed changes to independent study law as part of the 2022 Governor’s Budget intended to be responsive to some of these concerns,” Holmes said. 

As Davis’ Best observed, there has been more focus at the state level on independent study in the last 18 months than there has been in a very long time. That attention doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon.

“Given the potential for increased demand, independent study laws will be more important to California moving forward,” Holmes said. “While there will likely continue to be amendments to the programs to provide more flexibility to meet innovation and demand, there will always be core requirements related to ensuring programmatic accountability, to protect both students and taxpayers.”

Building to last
In November, the Education Commission of the States released A Policymaker’s Guide to Virtual Schools, a document detailing the four primary types of virtual schools (charter schools, single district schools, multi-district schools and state schools), recent research on school and student performance, policy areas that lawmakers can look to to ensure quality virtual schools, and legislative examples and initiatives from 20 states.

Even with a substantial amount of legislative action in the country, there are some virtual schools still being governed by policies “developed for brick-and-mortar schools that are not necessarily conducive to meaningful oversight of a virtual school,” the guidance’s author, Ben Erwin, said in the report.

Some effective levers that state leaders have to monitor and improve alternative school quality are authorization and approval of standards, student attendance and engagement, teachers, and instruction and funding.

Best discussed the gamble LEAs like his have taken on with programs like Davis Joint USD’s and will likely continue to. There is a risk quotient associated with, for example, smaller schools because the economy of scale is smaller. Administrators need to be comfortable with knowing that and assessing value other ways. “We’ve got one-time money to readjust through a certain duration of time but that comfort with that risk quotient, you have to understand what the value of that program is and the cost if you don’t do it and be willing to take some risks to make sure that it’s viable,” Best said.

As Kinder put it, however, virtual schools and the skills associated with attending one lend themselves well to life after high school.

“Everything that our students are doing after they leave K-12 school is going to be more in line with what we do at these small alternative education schools than what traditional schools do these days,” he said. “Do I think that all schooling is going to shift to this way? No. But do I think our traditional schools will take on aspects of our alternative education programs? 100 percent.”

Heather Kemp is a staff writer for California Schools.