By March 2020, COVID-19 had shut down schools in Oregon, forcing everyone to learn remotely. In the following school year, that continued as thousands of students started the school year in comprehensive distance learning.

Some students decided to move to a completely virtual education, transferring to established virtual charter schools or newly virtual schools through their school district.

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That led to some schools seeing dramatic growth, such as Hillsboro Online Academy, which has been around since 2012. Last year, the school’s enrollment exploded, from 155 students in 2019-20 to 1,145 students in 2020-21, according to state enrollment data.

Before the school year starts, the school is preparing devices for students. An influx of new students to the Hillsboro Online Academy has increased technology needs.

Before the school year starts, the school is preparing devices for students. An influx of new students to the Hillsboro Online Academy has increased technology needs.

Elizabeth Miller / OPB

Principal Linda Harrington said she saw students coming into school with more needs as they continued schooling through a pandemic.

“Yes, we’re an option school, but sometimes it feels like we’re an alternative school,” Harrington said.

When it comes to newly released graduation rate data, HOA reported a 4-year graduation rate of 76.79% for the Class of 2021. That’s a decline of about five percentage points from the previous year.

The four-year graduation rate tracks students from the time they start ninth grade, until they reach their anticipated graduation date, four years later. Students who change schools are generally counted toward the grad rate at the school where they’re last enrolled.

The pandemic is driving enrollment increases at online schools new and old, and with that growth, they’re drawing increased scrutiny from the state. But students at these schools also need support, and newly-released graduation rates show there’s still a long way to go in catching online schools up to their brick and mortar counterparts.

Harrington recognizes graduation rates as one measure of achievement. But she says whether a student has earned a diploma doesn’t necessarily reflect how a student’s going to do after school.

“The bottom line, I always want them to be successful, and I want them to feel good about themselves, and I want them to feel good about next steps,” Harrington said.

“Yes, the grad rate, and the completion rate are important, but that is not the motivation for this. This is kids.”

Increasing support while keeping students on track

At the state level, Oregon Department of Education director Colt Gill said efforts around new standards for virtual schools grew out of “significant concern” about the schools’ graduation rates. In the data for the Class of 2021, some schools report 4-year graduation rates of 27% or 44%, compared to the state’s 4-year average of 80.6%.

ODE’s focus on online schools also stems from a 2017 Secretary of State audit that called out the state’s lack of oversight for online and alternative schools. Authors of the audit recommended ODE develop an accountability system and establish attendance and funding standards.

Gill said the state board of education is working with virtual schools and school districts to create a set of standards for these schools.

“We need to make sure that we’re supporting the schools and holding them to high standards at the same time,” Gill said.

Much like Harrington’s description of the Hillsboro Online Academy, Gill said virtual schools can provide an opportunity for students who haven’t been successful in a traditional school environment.

“Graduation rates [at online schools] do trail, sometimes significantly, the graduation rates in our brick and mortar schools,” Gill said. “...Some of them operate as alternative schools where students were also not successful at the brick and mortar school that they originally came from, and entered those schools behind in credits to start with.”

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At Metro East Web Academy, an online school based in Gresham, enrollment increased by 48% for the 2020-2021 school year, growing to 800 students. The school’s 4-year graduation rate for that same year was 47.39%, a decrease of almost 11 percentage points from the previous year.

Metro East Web Academy executive director David Gray said it’s hard making year over year comparisons between students, because the student population changes throughout the year, with some students coming to the school behind in credits, and disengaged from school.

“We focus first on attendance, as we know that before engagement can occur, students must be present and engaged,” Gray wrote in an email to OPB.

“We next focus on engagement for academic success, and then lastly, if students find academic success, then they will be on track to graduate.”

Gray said more than half of the students who came to Metro East Web Academy for their senior year were behind.

“On average, the 39 12th grade students came to us 10 credits behind — that is almost two years behind in their graduation requirements,” Gray wrote in an email to OPB.

The school is working on a standards-based grading system, and interviewing students who were not successful in the online school setting.

“We pride ourselves on working to meet the needs of students and families, understanding that students need to have their basic needs met prior to being open and ready to learn,” Gray said.

Results from a district-hosted online program in its first year

In Beaverton, district officials created an online program within the school, as a way to keep students in Beaverton while still serving their needs.

“We know we also have kids because they struggle connecting in a comprehensive school environment,” said Jon Franco, the executive administrator for high schools in Beaverton.

FLEX Online School’s Class of 2021 was its first. The rate of students who graduated in four years — but only spent senior year at FLEX Online School — was 80.65%.

Franco said graduation rates for online schools tend to be lower across the board in Oregon, but Beaverton will continue to support its virtual students.

“We’re realists as well, but we’re going to continue to strive to keep that grad rate where it’s at,” Franco said.

Five-year graduation rates, as well as 5-year completer rates (for students who graduate through a GED or other diploma alternatives), for these schools are much higher, with some schools at 66% and higher.

Linda Harrington is the principal of Hillsboro Online Academy. The online school started in 2012.

Linda Harrington is the principal of Hillsboro Online Academy. The online school started in 2012.

Elizabeth Miller / OPB

Before COVID-19, the 5-year completer rate was the measure Harrington in Hillsboro looked at most. For HOA, that rate was 95.45% for the Class of 2021.

Going forward, she said she’ll work to keep that 5-year completion rate high, but her focus for now is getting students to re-engage with school.

One of her first efforts is something she calls “triage.” It’ll be an in-person opportunity for students, starting with seniors, to have a place to connect with peers and teachers. Before the pandemic, the school offered in-person opportunities like PE, but that’s been on hold for the last two years.

Although her school has “online” in its name, Harrington sees doing more in-person down the road than just PE. She envisions placing rugs in an old gym, with rocking chairs, cookies and music.

“We’re an online school offering on-site support again,” Harrington said. “I’m so excited it gives me goosebumps.”

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