Julez Wagner escaped bullying and her disenchantment with Edina Public Schools to make her way to graduation day by studying virtually at BlueSky Online.

In St. Paul, Isabelle Fowler, a fiercely independent fifth-grader, moved to online learning, too, via Minnesota Connections Academy (MNCA) so she could train and compete as a figure skater.

The two schools were established long before the COVID-19 pandemic forced families statewide into the often-frustrating world of distance learning.

Now, as MNCA, BlueSky and other online schools report increased interest in their offerings, and the outlook for brick-and-mortar schools has yet to be settled for the fall, the question arises: How strong of an option are they?

Jeff Plaman, online and digital learning specialist for the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE), said last week that the agency views the schools as "constantly improving." Among them are full-time comprehensive programs covering multiple grades and issuing diplomas, and supplemental ones that offer courses to students who still attend school in their home districts.

But MDE has flagged online charter schools for falling short on graduation rates. Many schools also post lackluster results on the academic side, especially in math, a longtime sticking point for online schools nationwide.

A Star Tribune review of 2018-19 test score data showed the state's online schools averaged just 27% in terms of students who tested as proficient in math.

Results for individual schools ranged from 8% of students meeting the math standards at Insight School of Minnesota in Brooklyn Center to 43% of students being proficient at Cyber Village Academy in St. Paul.

On the graduation front, the Star Tribune analysis finds that 53% of online students graduated within four years in 2019, compared with 91% of students in traditional schools and 63% in charter schools.

Online school leaders say that while they do attract high-achievers looking for flexibility with their schedules, they also draw students who are transient, or who have struggled with their mental or physical health, or who have had trauma in their lives.

That means many arrive behind in their studies — much like kids at a district alternative school, Plaman said.

The state is focusing much of its work with online schools on helping them build strong relationships between students and teachers.

Angela Jerabek, founder and executive director of the BARR Center, said MDE is to be commended for its approach.

She has led webinars on relationship-building for the agency, most recently as part of the midstream response to the state's two-months-plus move to distance learning. But, Jerabek said, the state can't lose sight of academic achievement.

"Those skills open doors," she said. "Math and literacy are nonnegotiable in this society."

Plaman said MDE has made instructional strategies for math a part of a daylong online and digital learning summit it has hosted for educators in each of the past four years.

Statewide draw

Minnesota now has 37 online learning providers. Last year, the programs received a total of $76 million in state aid.

Of the schools, Minnesota Connections Academy offers the best example of a program's potential reach. About half of its 2,800 students live in the metro area, with the rest residing in virtually "every nook and cranny in the state," Principal Melissa Gould said recently.

A stick pin map shows families in the area of Superior National Forest.

Students receive loaner laptops and families are issued modest monthly internet stipends on a quarterly basis.

The school is a division of Connections Education, a national K-12 online learning provider that offers the curriculum and has demonstrated a willingness to take on criticism of the so-called cyber charters.

In 2011-12, BlueSky survived an effort by MDE to shut it down. The agency had claimed the school violated state graduation requirements, but an administrative law judge found MDE failed to prove "a history of major or repeated violations of law."

About the same time, a state legislative audit found that full-time online students in Minnesota had low course-completion rates, higher-than-average dropout rates and tended to lose ground on state standardized math tests.

Since then, Amy Larsen, now the superintendent of BlueSky, has been honored by the MN Association of Charter Schools as its 2019 charter leadership award winner, and Gould, of Minnesota Connections Academy, said that her school continues to improve math instruction while also acknowledging it remains a difficult content area for online learners.

"It is a little bit of a quandary why math is different for students online," she said. "If we had the magic, we definitely would have improved it more than we have."

Natalie Fowler, whose daughter Isabelle has been studying online at MNCA for two years now, said it has been a great experience. As a mother, she said, she did not expect to be in charge of someone's education, and was nervous.

She explains math topics to Isabelle at times, she said, but Isabelle also participates in "time to talk" sessions with math teachers who will walk students through problems.

"It gave her a lot of confidence," she said.

Since the onset of the pandemic, MNCA has seen a 51% increase in parental interest in its online programming.

Graduation time

MDE, as part of its "North Star" school accountability system, flags schools with four-year graduation rates below 67% — qualifying them for support through the state's Regional Centers of Excellence.

MNCA's graduation rate now is at 75%, and BlueSky's at 42%, school leaders say.

Like BlueSky, Cyber Village Academy has made social-emotional learning part of its improvement strategy, and this year the school saw 78% of seniors graduate, including each of the 12 seniors who had been with the program for four years, officials say.

Wagner, the BlueSky senior, could have participated in an in-person ceremony Saturday, if not for the pandemic. But she would've been in no mood to celebrate, she said, citing George Floyd's death.

"The weight of the world has been feeling extra heavy," she said.

Social justice and police brutality fuel her artwork. Wagner is a musician, too, and credits BlueSky and the online experience with giving her the time and freedom to express herself.

As for math, she said she was able to reconnect with it by learning how it applies to her world.

Her goal is to be a holistic doctor contributing to the betterment of lives around her.

And to that end, Wagner plans to begin studies this fall at Maharishi International University, her dream school — and an online one, at that.