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State regulators stymie private, online Christian high school

August 30, 2012
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State education officials are raising objections to Renton Christian School’s proposed online high school program that don’t seem to exist for online schools aligned with public school districts.

Washington state currently authorizes dozens of private schools and operates hundreds of its own public ones – including a growing number of online programs.

What it doesn’t have yet is an officially recognized school that’s both online and private. The question is whether that’s because of an administrative discrepancy or an active desire to thwart such an enterprise.

“There’s no question in my mind the state has no interest in making it any easier to create something that competes with its public school product,” said Erik Konsmo, director of the Renton Christian School, which has been attempting for two years to add an online high school to its current brick-and-mortar elementary and junior high programs.

“They’ve come up with a lot of technical problem we need to address,” Konsmo said, “but ultimately I just wonder whether this is something they want to do at all.”

The existing Renton Christian School has around 450 students in grades 1 through 8 and envisioned starting off with 20 to 25 online high schoolers. The sticking point, however, was meeting all the state requirements – without which the school would be ineligible for accreditation and its’ students’ transcripts would not be accepted by colleges or other high schools.

Erik Konsmo

“Washington state has one set of private school approval requirements and standards, and one private school approval process,” wrote Martin T. Mueller, assistant superintendent for student support with  the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction in an e-mail to Konsmo in June.

“In that sense, Washington does not have an approval process specifically for private online schools,” Mueller explained. “Because a 9-12 offering by Renton Christian is considered a new school, you must actively demonstrate, using our proscribed application process, that your new high school meets all the requirements and standards for approval specified (under state law). Once you do so, OSPI will forward your application on to the State Board of Education for approval.”

The question is how to document something that doesn’t exist. In particular, the state insists students must receive 1,000 hours of instruction during a 180-day school year. However, showing how that happens with an arrangement in which, by definition, the student and teacher are separated by many miles can be problematic.

“Demonstrating the 1,000 hours provided in no less than 180 days typically means that you can show that each student is actually provided 1,000 hours of instruction (educational activity planned by and under the direction of school staff, inclusive of passing time and exclusive of meals),” Mueller wrote.

“Typically,” he added, “this also means that you can show that each teacher is actually providing 150 hours of direct instruction for each course for which one full credit is awarded. High schools pursuing approval often provide a listing of the courses offered and a description of the curriculum, the course schedule, the bell schedule or daily class schedule, teacher course assignments and policies on grading and attendance, among other things.”

Konsmo said public schools show compliance with the rule by using a formula that adds the number of instruction hours its on-site and online students receive, then averages the two numbers together.

That answer won’t work for the Renton program, though, since it currently has no high school students either on- or off-site.

“We could show how many instruction hours our younger students are getting, since high school and elementary students have to meet the same standard,” Konsmo said. “But the state won’t let us do that.”

Nor will it allow the high school program to be separated from the lower grades and evaluated separately.

“What data could we use to verify that our online students are receiving the necessary instruction time?” Konsmo asked the OSPI regulators in a subsequent e-mail. “In our own evaluation of the program, the education received would be quite vigorous and would fall in line with the accelerated standards we have set for our school in elementary and junior high, and would more than meet college entrance requirements. How can we verify any of that with you?”

Renton Christian’s high school would contract with a company called Sevenstar to provide its curriculum. Sevenstar, has been endorsed by the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI), the largest guild of Christian schools in the world.

As its name implies, Renton Christian has a strong religious component to its daily activities. According to the school’s website, “RCS fosters a rigorous spiritual atmosphere that seeks to mentor each student to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Class lessons teach biblical principles and values, which becomes the basis for attitudes, thoughts, words and actions. Each teacher is qualified to apply class subjects to the lives of the students.”

But Konsmo doesn’t think the school’s difficulties with the state are rooted in resentment of its religious doctrine.

“There are a lot of religious private schools recognized by the state,” he said. “I think it’s just that we’re doing something new, something that requires them to be flexible, and they have no inclination to be helpful to anything that shakes up the status quo.”

For now, the two sides are at an impasse, and Konsmo said Renton Christian officials are about ready to “throw up our hands and conclude this won’t get done.

“I know in some states, teachers’ unions have filed lawsuits against their own school districts (that) are trying to increase the online schooling options for families,” Konsmo said. “I hope that’s not the roadblock we’re facing here.

“Online schooling isn’t for everyone,” he said, “but it is a solid solution for many students and families in the quickly-changing environment of K-12 education.”

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