Before becoming the board chair of N.C. Connections Academy, Bridget Phifer was a parent of a student enrolled in the virtual charter school. Health issues kept Bridget’s husband in and out of the hospital, but the flexibility offered by the virtual charter school let their daughter visit her father while keeping up with her education.

Representatives from the N.C. Connections Academy and the North Carolina Virtual Academy gave presentations Tuesday to the Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee documenting the progress they have made since the pilot program began in 2015. The schools are in their third year of a four-year program, giving them just one more year to prove themselves to the legislature or possibly close.

Both schools have taught more than 2,000 students since opening three years ago. All NCVA teachers are licensed, and 60 percent of NC Connection Academy’s teachers have an advanced degree. Parent satisfaction is high for both schools despite some challenges with the schools’ performance grades.

NC Connections Academy — operated by Connections Education, a subsidiary of the textbook publisher Pearson — saw the greatest improvement of the two virtual charter schools. Overall reading grades improved from a C to a B from the 2015-16 school year to 2016-17. Math scores also improved from a D to a C, but the school’s overall performance grade remains a D.

The NCVA — operated by K12 Inc.— also received a D for school performance, earning an F in math and a C in reading, the same as the previous year. Joel Medley, head of NCVA, admitted there is room for improvement, but added that the school is comparable academically to traditional schools in Durham County in all areas except math.

Both schools are considered low-performing because they failed to meet school growth standards for the recent academic year.

Despite persisting challenges, both schools seek to have their pilot status removed and be treated like a brick-and-mortar charter school.  

“We’re asking that this pilot status be looked at and ultimately removed because there are hundreds and even thousands of kids and teachers that would benefit from our model,” Nathan Currie, the superintendent for NC Connections Academy, told committee members. Currie said the pilot status makes it difficult to attract more teachers and students to the school.

Medley did not explicitly ask for the pilot status to be removed, but instead noted NCVA already meets the requirements a traditional charter needs for a 10-year renewal.

The committee did not decide whether the pilot status would be extended, removed, or left to expire, but some members offered opinions on the program.

“I personally would like to see you have an opportunity to extend this,” Rep. Larry Pittman, R-Cabarrus said. “I don’t know if we’ll make it permanent. I don’t know whether we have the votes to do that, but I think we ought to give you some kind of extension.”

Sen. Joyce Waddell, D-Mecklenburg, questioned whether the virtual school program could not be duplicated in traditional brick-and-mortar public schools.

Currie said no. The culture and the curriculum for virtual charter schools are different from those in traditional public schools. Teachers are trained for the virtual classroom and the unique challenges it presents. That training may not translate to a brick-and-mortar school.

“There are a lot of components into what we are doing that would make it very complicated if not difficult to replicate in that environment,” Currie said. “Remember, the whole purpose of a charter school is to be innovative.”