Online schools take another hit as charter board votes to shutter Nevada Connections Academy

charter school board meeting
Representatives of Nevada Connections Academy address the Nevada State Public Charter School Authority Board in Las Vegas on Jan. 31. (Photo from live stream of meeting)

There is a case to be made for online schools.

But online schools in Nevada are having trouble making it.

The Nevada State Public Charter School Authority Board voted 4-1 on Friday to deny Nevada Connections Academy’s application for renewal, which barring legal action effectively closes the fully virtual middle and high school at the end of the current academic year in May.

Chair Melissa Mackedon and board members Sheila Moulton, Sami Randolph and Tonia Holmes-Sutton voted for closure.

Two of the seven board members — Randy Kirner, Mallory Cyr — were not present for the vote.

Don Soifer cast the lone no vote.

Soifer expressed a desire to renew the middle school for three years and allow currently enrolled juniors and seniors to finish in the next two years. Nevada Connections was already barred from enrolling any new high school students.

Charter School Authority Executive Director Rebecca Feiden told the board her staff had communicated to Nevada Connections last fall “there was an appetite” for seeing a renewal application of only the middle school, but the online school had pressed forward with a renewal application for both levels. Mackedon said she doubted the board and school could reach such an agreement during a public meeting if similar talks between authority staff and the school had failed.

If the middle school had been renewed and it failed to achieve a 3-star rating in the Nevada State Performance Framework (NSPF) after this academic year, it would have again been subject to potential closure by the board. Similarly, the high school, if it had been renewed, would have been subject to mandatory closure if it received another 1-star rating or possible closure by the board if it received a 2-star rating.

Nevada Connections’ elementary school is already slated for mandatory closure because it received three consecutive years of 1-star ratings.

Nevada Connections has signaled it may pursue legal action against the charter authority in an attempt to keep its middle and high school open. It is not fighting the closure of the elementary school.

Approximately 3,500 students will be affected by the three closures.

The charter school board members’ comments and discussion Friday were truncated due to time constraints at one of the three meeting locations. The 4-1 vote came after nearly six hours of presentations and public comments from Nevada Connections staff, students and parents of students.

A SNAPSHOT? OR A PATTERN?

Scott Harrington, president of Nevada Connections’ board of directors, argued the high school was supposed to be judged “based solely on graduation rate” and that they have exceeded those expectations.

The school improved its graduation rate from 45 percent to 63 percent and 69 percent over the past two academic years. That far exceeds the benchmarks set in the improvement plan approved by the board, which were 49 percent and 60 percent for those two academic years. The school says it is projecting a 78 percent graduation rate for the current school year. All real and projected graduation rates at the school are still significantly behind the statewide graduation rate of 84 percent.

The Nevada Connections Academy team further argued their school was a victim of “goalposts being changed” both by the charter school authority and the state rating system. They said a huge dip in the school’s index scores attached to the state’s star-rating system could be attributed to changing criteria. For example, the state moved from awarding a significant number of star-rating points based off end-of-course exams to ACTs scores.

Mackeon said she took offense to the argument that the charter authority’s staff or board have been inconsistent in their dealings with the embattled online school.

“(Previous Chair Jason) Guinasso said (the graduation rate) would be the standard. It had to be the standard. It makes up 30 points of the Nevada School Performance Framework. Without it coming up there was no way to move the needle but to say that we didn’t care about the NSPF rating? You just have to look at any of our meetings to know that is simply not true,” she said.

In explaining her official recommendation to close the school, Feiden said the school should not be judged solely off graduation improvements and that the totality of data showed the school was still failing.

“Graduation rates were met, and this is important. Every other metric does not meet the expectations of what our students deserve.”

Nevada Connections was founded in 2007 — years before the charter school authority was created. It struggled with performance from the beginning.

The school is currently in the bottom 10 schools when it comes to career and college readiness, according to state rankings. Its English Language Arts test scores have improved over the past three years but are still 12 percent below state average. Math test scores are more than 15 percentage points below average. When it comes to overall index scores for the star-rating system, Nevada Connections was fourth lowest in the state. (One of the schools below them has since been shut down.)

Feiden used a stark example: Only one out of 10 Nevada Connections juniors are considered proficient in math.

She argued the school seems to be working for one out of 10 students, and that the families of that minority are vocal in their support, but the silent reality is the school is failing nine out of 10 students.

Many of the parents who attended the charter school board meeting described Nevada Connections as a safe haven for bullying and as a godsend for students with disabilities or special needs who thrive in more flexible learning environments.

“You keep talking about the star ratings,” said Donna Thomas-Rodgers, a parent addressing the board. “That’s a snapshot.”

Holmes-Sutton said the stories from families were tearing at her heart and she wanted to do the right thing.

“But I have to believe there’s been a long time for us to do the right thing,” she added.

Holmes-Sutton acknowledged the school’s argument the graduation rate was a key metric but said that, as a mother and as a teacher, she would never be focused on just one component of improvement instead of improvement in its entirety.

“Even if I was never asked to focus on other measures, I would. And I would expect that if I came before someone they would ask me about them (and) that I would be held accountable for them.”

THE BIGGER PICTURE

Representatives from Nevada Connections told the charter school board that shuttering their school sends a message charter schools should be wary of which students they enroll because certain students are known to bring down star ratings. The criticism comes at a time when the charter school authority is making a concentrated effort to increase socioeconomic diversity at its schools.

Charter schools as a whole have been criticized for being whiter and more affluent than traditional public schools. An analysis of demographic data by the Current in 2018 found that to be true here in Nevada, especially among the state’s top-rated charters.

According to data from the state, Nevada Connections is more racially diverse than many of its peers under the charter school authority, but it is not more diverse than the public schools as a whole across the state.

In defense of its school during the board meeting Friday, representatives from Nevada Connections focused on the issue of transiency — meaning students who have attended several schools. According to Nevada Connections, the mobility rate at the school is 2.5 times the state average, with the vast majority of students attending multiple schools before enrolling with them.

National research has shown that transiency correlates with poor academic performance, both because inconsistency between teachers and curriculum makes it more difficult for a student to learn, and because students in transient families are often dealing with outside factors (ex, financial instability, homelessness) that make education not a top priority.

“We serve the most difficult and transient students,” said Harrington. “We have students who may take five years, some may take six, but they graduate.”

He continued, “We do not cherry pick. A big rhetorical question is: Why is there an increasing number of students struggling, and if our doors close where will these students go? Everyone wants to help the homeless but they all say ‘Not on my street.’”

Nevada Connections currently enrolls students from all across the state.

It is not the only online school that has a rocky relationship with the charter school authority. The charter school board has previously shut down Argent Preparatory Academy and Nevada Virtual Academy elementary school due to poor performance.

Meanwhile, Beacon Academy, another school that falls under the charter school board umbrella, began as a fully online school with open enrollment but after finding itself in hot water over poor performance data transitioned to being a mostly online school with enrollment limited to credit-deficient students. They are now considered an “alternative education” school by the board and therefore subject to different performance measures.

Randolph emphasized that her vote to close down Nevada Connections was “by no means” indicative of a lack of support for online schools as a whole.

“With our strategic plan and all of that, I am the one who’s asking and looking for innovation in different school models,” she said. “But we want school models that can correlate with and improve academic performance.”

According to Feiden, two other fully virtual schools under oversight of the charter school authority have high transiency rates but are currently ranked as 3-star schools.

During the 2019 Legislative Session, lawmakers passed a bill to create specific regulations for online charter schools, thus cementing the divide between brick and mortar charter schools and virtual schools. The Nevada Department of Education has yet to adopt any regulations specific to virtual charter schools.

April Corbin Girnus
April Corbin Girnus is an award-winning journalist with a decade of media experience. She has been a beat writer at Las Vegas Sun, a staff writer at LEO Weekly, web editor of Las Vegas Weekly and a blogger documenting North American bike share systems’ efforts to increase ridership in underserved communities. An occasional adjunct journalism professor, April steadfastly rejects the notion that journalism is a worthless major. Amid the Great Recession, she earned a B.A. in journalism from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where she served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. She later earned an M.A. in media studies and a graduate certificate in media management from The New School for Public Engagement. April currently serves on the board of the Society of Professional Journalists Las Vegas pro chapter. A stickler about municipal boundary lines, April enjoys teaching people about unincorporated Clark County. She grew up in Sunrise Manor and currently resides in Paradise with her husband, two children and three mutts.