BOSTON — Zoe Shultz didn't like the pressures of fitting in at high school or dealing with cliques of students who were judgmental and unfriendly.

"I didn't seem to fit in very well," said Shultz, 16. "And I didn't like feeling like I was the kid who wasn't the smartest or the most popular in school."

After a little more than a week as a freshman at Haverhill High School, she talked with her parents about alternatives.

After some research, her family enrolled her at TEC Connections Academy in East Walpole, one of the state's two "virtual" schools, where students from kindergarten to 12th grade learn reading, writing, math and other subjects by logging into online classrooms taught by state-certified instructors.

"I really like it," said Schultz, now a 10th grader. "A lot the schoolwork is the same as regular school, but I can work at my own pace, which I prefer."

Enrollment boom

Virtual school enrollment has risen dramatically in Massachusetts in recent years, as more parents have discovered the option.

More than 2,700 students from about 200 home districts attend virtual schools — a five-fold increase from the 496 students who took full-time online classes just four years ago, according to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Along with the rising enrollment, costs to school districts have skyrocketed.

Under state law, schools districts are required to pay for local students who seek for alternative education, including at virtual schools.

In the 2013-14 school year, districts spent $7.9 million to cover the costs of local students enrolled in virtual schools.

That figure nearly doubled to $14 million by 2016-17, though some of that growth was due to an increase in the amount each district now spends to send a student to a virtual school, which is $8,190 per pupil per year.

"There's definitely been an enrollment increase," said Cliff Chuang, a senior associate commissioner at the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education whose office oversees the taxpayer-funded schools. "But relatively speaking, our virtual school sector is still slow growing and small compared to other states."

Several districts North of Boston are increasingly sending students to virtual schools.

Twenty-six students from Lawrence attended virtual schools in fiscal year 2017, at a cost to the local district of $186,611, according to state data. That's up from seven students in fiscal 2015.

Haverhill sent 23 students to virtual schools in 2017, at a cost of $161,837, up from seven students two years earlier.

Salem Schools had 11 full-time students going to virtual school in 2017, costing the district about $90,000, a four-fold increase from 2015.

New options

Some parents say they’ve chosen virtual schools because their children struggled in traditional schools. Others do so for their flexible schedules.

"Our largest group are probably students who have social or emotion barriers and maybe faced bullying in school," said Adam Goldberg, superintendent at TEC Connections Academy.

"But we also get kids who are gifted or involved in competitive sports and don't want to sacrifice their talent by a traditional 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. school day," he said.

Scott Cooke, of North Andover, whose 16-year-old daughter Sydney is a sophomore at TECCA, chose virtual schools because of her rigorous athletic schedule. She's a competitive pairs figure skater whose demanding training routine and frequent travel conflicted with the requirements of a traditional high school.

"It's a little more work than regular high school, but she can tailor her school day," Cooke said. "It gives her a lot more flexibility."

Some kids who go to virtual schools are dealing with behavioral issues and have been referred by their home districts, while others are struggling with mental illness or social anxiety.

In Zoe's case, it wasn't necessarily an issue of bullying or fear of socializing with others. She just wasn't into the cliquey culture of high school.

"She's just a normal kid who didn't like being judged," said her father, David Shultz. "I think it's made learning easier for her by taking that stress out of it."

Shultz said he was was initially skeptical about the quality of education, that it wouldn't provide enough structure or lacked social interaction, but he said he's been impressed.

"Overall it's been a terrific experience," he said. "I think she's getting as good an education as she would at Haverhill High."

Cheaper alternative

The growth of taxpayer-funded charter schools has fueled political battles on Beacon Hill in recent years over the impact on state education funding.

So far, nobody is raising any red flags about the fiscal impact of virtual schools — even as lawmakers and Gov. Charlie Baker wrangle over proposed changes to the state's education funding formula.

For one, many superintendents view online schools as a cheaper alternative to educate students who have mental health, behavioral needs or other special needs.

"If you have a youngster with mental health, anxiety or physical issues, more likely than not they could make a case for special education placement," said Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. "And, in many cases, a special education placement would be far more expensive."

To be sure, school districts spent an average of $16,000 per student in overall costs in the 2016-17 school year -- double the amount spent on each virtual school student.

And the fiscal impact is nowhere near that of charter schools, which collectively divert nearly $600 million a year in Chapter 70 education from local districts.

Beth Kontos, president of the Massachusetts chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said the union supports virtual schools as an alternative for students with behavioral, developmental and other special needs and hasn't raised concerns yet.

But she worries about their long-term expansion, as well as the effects of diverting more students and resources away from traditional schools.

"I'm afraid of this slow drip becoming something bigger, like charter schools," she said. "We don't need to be steering more resources away from school districts."

Academic performance

The state allows up to 10 virtual schools under a 2013 law signed by then-Gov. Deval Patrick. So far, only two have opened — TECCA and the Greenfield Commonwealth Virtual School in Greenfield.

Other prospective schools have sought to open but didn’t.

"The expectations for running a virtual school are high," Chuang said. "We've had applications that haven't moved forward because they didn't meet the criteria."

The state caps the number of students who can attend virtual schools statewide at 2 percent of the overall enrollment in traditional brick-and-mortar public schools.

Low academic performance and the test scores of many students attending virtual schools is a concern for state education officials, he said.

"We've been monitoring the academic performance carefully," Chuang said. "It's one of the reasons we are proceeding cautiously with virtual schools."

The Greenfield school, which opened in 2010, was placed on academic probation several years ago because of its low test scores.

Recent studies have found that students at virtual schools lag their peers in more traditional settings.

A 2015 study by the Stanford University-based Center for Research on Education Outcomes found "the academic benefits from online charter schools are currently the exception rather than the rule."

Skeptics also note that many virtual schools are run by for-profit operators, and research has generally found poor academic results among those companies.

But educators defend their virtual schools, arguing that lower test scores and other metrics reflect their unique population.

"We have quite a few students who come to us because they have experienced a great deal of difficulty learning in a brick and mortar school," said Salah Khelfaoui executive director of the Greenfield Commonwealth Virtual School. "So it's really hard to judge us by the same accountability model, because we don't share the same population of students."

Virtual students

Elsewhere, the rising popularity of the schools has fueled concerns about the long-term financial impact on cash-strapped traditional school districts.

In Maine, where virtual schools are even more popular in rural communities, the drain on school funding has caused a backlash. A 2015 report by the Maine Education Association criticized virtual schools for diverting state funds from traditional schools, forcing communities to raise taxes.

"Virtual schools take funding away from public schools making it harder for our schools to give each child the top-notch education they deserve," the report said.

In Indiana, two virtual charter schools are accused of counting toward their enrollment thousands of students who never signed up or completed full-time classes.

The schools, which purported to educate about 6,000 students, are also accused of misappropriating state funds and failing to properly administer standardized tests.

Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, said state education officials need keep a handle on rising enrollment at the online academies, especially when it comes to verifying that students whom the schools claim to be full-time are actually doing the required work.

"There's always a concern that some of the virtual schools may be filled with virtual students," he said. "So far, we haven't seen those kinds of problems here."

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. 

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Virtual school enrollment

2016-17 school year

City/Town Number students Cost to district

Haverhill 23.9 $161,837

Lawrence 26.2 $186,611

Methuen 18.4 $127,030

Beverly 12.4 $89,715

Salem 10.7 $71,153

Andover 8.3 $55,716

Newburyport 5 $33,208

Gloucester 5 $35,702

Source: Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education

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