Ruling leaves HISD 'virtual' students in limbo

HOUSTON When HISD partnered with an online school two years ago, the concept caught on quickly. Last year, one thousand kids took classes online; this year, 1,600 more enrolled. But now, those new students may be forced to transfer, because their virtual school received a surprise decision from the Texas Education Agency.

Kelly Heusi is an elite gymnast who spends eight hours a day in the gym. With the demands of her workouts, keeping up with school work was almost impossible. Last year, she was getting home at 9pm.

Heusi said, "I would have to do all my homework and would be up all night trying to finish it and I'd be tired in the morning."

So she enrolled in Texas Connections Academy at Houston, and says attending virtual school has changed her life and her health.

"I can get it all done now," she said.

But just two days before the school year began, the Texas Education Agency dropped a bomb on HISD, saying it did not grant the virtual partner program an "appropriate" rating. That ruling meant the program's expansion, which added 1,600 new students, was denied, even after the new students had already enrolled.

HISD Compliance Officer Nancy Manley explained, "There has been an official letter of appeal which has gone to the commissioner as of late last week."

In spite of lower than anticipated math scores on the TAKS test, the district says its own review shows the program to be "academically acceptable" and believes the TEA made a mistake.

"We were supposed to be placed into the accountability system. We were not," Manley said.

Kelly Heusi's mother is hoping the ruling changes so her daughter can continue training and learning at a pace that makes sense.

"We need a virtual public school," Debbie Heusi said. "Private school is just not an option for us."

TEA officers declined to be interviewed, but released a statement late Tuesday afternoon saying: "The expansion was denied because the students in this program had a passing rate that was 20 percent below the statewide passing rate on the TAKS test. The program remains accredited for the current students."

If the appeal fails, 1,600 of the new virtual HISD students must transfer to a national program, which is not focused on Texas curriculum.

We worked on this story with the Bellaire Examiner, one of our Houston Community Newspaper partners.

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