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IPS to expand virtual options through partnerships with charters

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Indianapolis Public Schools will offer two full-time virtual options to students next school year through partnerships with Phalen Leadership Academies and Paramount Schools of Excellence.

The school board voted 5-1 to pass the agreements, which last five years each. Board member Taria Slack was not present at the meeting May 27.

The partnerships add to a portfolio of innovation schools, which are operated by charter organizations and nonprofit managers but are still part of IPS.

PLA Virtual Learning Academy will be a K-12 school with 2,000 seats for K-8 and 500 seats for ninth through 12th grade. Paramount Online Academy will be a K-8 school with 558 seats.

The district will pay $500 per student who lives within the district’s boundary. If every seat is filled and every student lives within the IPS boundary, the district would pay a little more than $1.5 million.

That’s on top of the per-student funding that comes from the state, which is 85% of the level brick-and-mortar schools get.

The district recently approved a plan to move about 600 high school students from traditional yellow bus service to IndyGo as part of an effort to cut spending. The district needs to find about $18 million in cuts because of lower enrollment.

Superintendent Aleesia Johnson said she believes in-person learning is still ideal for the “vast majority” of students but that it’s still important to have options for families who want to do virtual learning.

The district surveyed families who chose the full-time virtual option in April and found 60% of respondents said they wanted to have the option again next school year. About 70% said they had a “favorable or highly favorable” experience with virtual learning.

The response rate was low, though, with only 653 responses out of roughly 5,000 students who are virtual.

Board member Will Pritchard voted yes but said the low response rate was one reason it was difficult to reach a conclusion.

“I wonder if that alone is a justification for opening this door,” he said.

Pritchard also said it seems like an option the district wouldn’t have pursued if not for the COVID-19 pandemic and that he would have liked the agreement to be on a shorter timeframe — something like two years instead of five. (All of the district’s innovation agreements are for five years.)

Board member Susan Collins, the lone no vote, said she’s received hundreds of emails from parents and “influencers” asking for equity in a return to in-person learning. She said virtual learning, though necessary during the pandemic, isn’t equitable, in part because it can be “isolating and non-engaging.”

Board member Diane Arnold said she voted yes because of the uncertainty surrounding education needs.

“I don’t know what the future is for virtual schools,” she said. “Two years ago, it wasn’t an issue, but it certainly is an issue now. Maybe in two years we won’t need it, but I do think it’s still necessary.”

Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.

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