'Blended learning' model pitched to several Southern Berkshire school leaders

LENOX — Leaders of the nation's largest online learning company providing combined web-based and in-classroom courses pitched a "blended learning" model to several Southern Berkshire public school leaders and teachers this week. The preliminary discussion of the program directed in part toward "at-risk" and home-schooled students was led by state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox.

The session was arranged through lobbyist Pierce Haley, a longtime Pignatelli acquaintance whose firm, Serlin Haley, has offices in Boston and Washington. Haley, who said he has represented the for-profit K12 Inc. in Massachusetts for about 10 years, acknowledged that he approached the lawmaker in order to promote the firm in Western Massachusetts.

The publicly traded company, which has contracts with more than 2,000 schools and school districts, reported revenue of $888 million for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2017, from operations in 33 states. It serves over 110,000 students in managed schools and others enrolled in online and blended school programs that use K12's curriculum but are directly managed by the school districts or charter school partners.

Haley has contributed a total of $300 in 2010 and 2015 to Pignatelli's campaign funds, according to public documents on file with the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance.

Pignatelli, a strong advocate of what he terms "creative approaches" to sustain quality education in a county with a shrinking, aging population and rising school budgets, told the gathering at Lenox Town Hall that he hoped to "rally" the schools in his South Berkshire district to explore K12's approach that blends online learning with traditional, supervised courses in a classroom setting.

"We are so parochial here in Massachusetts, we have silos, we don't like to play ball with other people sometimes because we feel it's going to be taking something away from us," Pignatelli asserted. "The demands of our educational system are challenging, to try to maintain the quality and the affordability."

The meeting was attended by administrators and educators of the Southern Berkshire Regional School District based in Sheffield, the Berkshire Hills district centered in Great Barrington and Lenox Public Schools. Pignatelli stated that Howard "Jake" Eberwein, the recently hired part-time superintendent for the Lee Public Schools, was unable to attend "but he's definitely very interested in being part of the conversation if we decide to all go forward with this."

During the session, Haley cited K12's operation of a controversial online school in Greenfield. The Massachusetts Virtual Academy's board of trustees voted in March 2016 to modify its contract with K12 in order to hire its own teachers while continuing to use the company's curriculum products.

According to the Recorder newspaper in Greenfield, the state Board of Secondary and Elementary Education had placed the virtual school on a 20-month probation starting in 2013 amid concerns over its academic programs and compliance with state regulations.

Haley declined to comment when asked by The Eagle about K12's mixed track record in Massachusetts and other states.

During the meeting, he touted the "blended model" of online and traditional education at the TEC Connections Academy Commonwealth Virtual School (TECCA), a collaborative of 11 cities and towns based in Natick that created a "school within a school." The tuition-free public virtual school gives students "the flexibility to learn at home with an online curriculum that meets rigorous Massachusetts state education standards," according to its website.

"We're thinking that may be something that would benefit the western part of the state," Haley said.

But Superintendent Peter Dillon of the Berkshire Hills Regional District and Shaker Mountain School Union voiced doubt about whether "collectively, we have enough kids to warrant going further. Does the conversation need to be bigger than the four South County districts, does it have to be a countywide conversation?"

Along similar lines, Lenox Schools Superintendent Timothy Lee asked whether "we're talking about just students who, because of their own personal learning reasons, find that it's not ideal for them to participate in classroom instruction, or are we talking about students who require a higher level of instruction that we're not able to provide because we don't have the resources or enough students to offer AP physics with calculus or French 5 AP."

According to Ken Meyer, K12's executive director of state and federal government affairs, the company based in Herndon, Va., now manages online schools in 33 states. "We've learned lessons along the way, what works and what doesn't work, so it's still an evolving process," he said.

Responding to a question from Glenn Devoti, principal of Mount Everett Regional School in Sheffield, Meyer acknowledged that while K12 mostly serves charter schools, "we do have some models for district-run schools. But by definition, we are the largest operator of charter schools in the country."

K12 employs a team of teachers, according to Jeff Kwitowski, senior vice president for public affairs and policy communications. Other schools use teachers employed by the school districts or nonprofit charter school governing boards. In both cases, he stated in a message to The Eagle, K12 provides professional development, training and support to over 5,000 teachers nationwide. In all cases, teachers are properly certified and meet the required state certification requirements, he added.

But K12 has run into a legal challenge in California. State Attorney General Kamala Harris reached an $8.5 million settlement with the California Virtual Academy, operated by K12 Inc. The company had been investigated for alleged false advertising, as well as for inadequate instruction and for misleading parents. The settlement included $6 million for the cost of the investigation.

"All children deserve, and are entitled under the law, to an equal education," Harris stated. "K12 and its schools misled parents and the state of California by claiming taxpayer dollars for questionable student attendance, misstating student success and parent satisfaction, and loading nonprofit charities with debt."

Under terms of the settlement, K12 and California Virtual Academy admitted no wrongdoing — and no fines or penalties were imposed — but agreed to abide by state law going forward and pledged to establish new training and oversight, that, according to the company, "go well above and beyond current independent study and charter school laws and regulations."

In a Los Angeles Times interview, K12 Chief Executive Stuart Udell emphasized that there was no finding of fact that the company has done anything inappropriate. "We have always completely followed the law," he asserted.

"Opponents of K12 and skeptics of public online education have spent years making wild, attention-grabbing charges about us and our business," Udell stated. "The state of California used the full authority and investigative resources of the office of the attorney general to investigate these charges for over eight months. In the end, we demonstrated industry-leading levels of service and compliance with regulations and benefits to families."

During the Lenox meeting, Lorna Bryant, the K12 vice president for blended learning, explained that the company's current curriculum combining online courses and face-to-face interaction in a classroom environment is aligned to state standards in Massachusetts and elsewhere.

The program includes special education, curriculum and teacher training support, Bryant stated, designed for home-schooled and "medically fragile" students as well as "accelerated learners," competitive athletes and "a broad spectrum of students."

She stressed that the company's work is focused increasingly on supporting traditional public schools.

"We've come far enough now; this is no longer cutting-edge, it's pretty mainstream, we've been working on a lot of models depending on what you're needing and depending on which students you want to reach," Bryant told the school administrators.

She said the K12 blended learning approach has been especially beneficial for higher-achieving students on the autism spectrum.

Superintendent Dillon cited enrollment and cost challenges. "We can't be everything to everyone," he said. "We should define what we can be and figure out what we can't be, and is there an opportunity to partner with you in filling some of those gaps." He listed "remarkably gifted kids, and kids who are really struggling" among specific groups of students who could benefit from blended learning.

"It doesn't have to be a series of separate programs as opposed to an alternative for students who just need something different," Bryant responded. "We have found more and more that it's your at-risk students, your second-chance students, who are looking to this model. It's because the system itself struggles to meet the needs of some of these students who simply can't be in a five-day-a-week, eight-hour-a-day model."

Summing up the discussion, Pignatelli said, "I think there's a unique opportunity; maybe there's a countywide approach, maybe start small and let it build up, but I would hope this conversation can continue."

In a follow-up interview, Pignatelli told The Eagle that "it's premature to talk about costs" per student if a Berkshire County district decides to work with K12. "It would be based on the school's needs and determining the number of students who would benefit from an online blended approach."

"We all need to figure out our demographics, school by school," he said. "Who are we serving? We need a bigger conversation about whether we're doing enough to fill the needs of the students."

Pignatelli asserted that any teachers using the company's online resources are "fully certified and meet all the criteria that the state expects. It's all about the teachers in the district, it's not about replacing the teachers."

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com or 413-637-2551.


If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.

Powered by Creative Circle Media Solutions