D-300 considers proposal to expand blended virtual learning at Cambridge Lakes

ALGONQUIN – Representatives from the nonprofit corporation that runs an area brick-and-mortar charter school approached District 300 board members and administrators Monday with the task of justifying a new online charter during the worst possible time.

Officials from the Northern Kane Educational Corp. unveiled a plan that would expand its blended virtual learning program at Cambridge Lakes Charter School in District 300’s territory of Pingree Grove to school districts across the state through the “Illinois Online Charter School,” despite growing resistance and skepticism toward virtual classrooms.

District 300 and 17 others in Fox Valley vehemently rejected a proposal earlier this year from the nonprofit Virtual Learning Solutions, arguing the group’s proposal was incomplete and didn’t address vital questions about curriculum and costs.

But Northern Kane insisted its proposal was not like Virtual Learning Solutions, arguing the expansion of its emerging blended program that combines traditional classroom instruction with online education would complement districts rather than compete against them.

“We see ourselves not as a thrust to the charter movement. We don’t see ourselves as being a proponent of the virtual movement,” said Larry Fuhrer, president and chief executive of Northern Kane. “We have only the interest of bringing blended virtual learning that we have learned here to other people around the state.”

The Virtual Learning Solutions conflict spurred legislation that would place a one-year moratorium on all state virtual charters introduced after April 1. It has cleared the House and sits in the Senate.

But Fuhrer said the chief sponsor of that legislation, Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, D-Aurora, told him his charter proposal is exempt because Northern Kane already had its blended virtual learning program in place.

Since 2011, Cambridge Lakes has offered a mix of traditional classroom instruction and online instruction for more than 70 students within District 300’s territory.

District board members didn’t challenge Fuhrer’s assertion that the Illinois Online Charter School would supplant the education of public schools. But members had ample questions about why they were needed to approve a proposal that provided no benefit to district students. They also scrutinized Fuhrer about whether district money would be needed for Northern Kane’s effort to expand its blended program to schools across the state.

“You would be going out to other districts within the boundaries of the state of Illinois providing those services based on a charter that we negotiated,” board President Anne Miller said. “I’m having a hard time figuring out where the benefit is to District 300.”

Fuhrer argued the primary benefit is added revenues for Northern Kane, which already works with the district to improve students’ education at Cambridge Lakes.

Teachers in the area also would receive training on blended learning, an educational service that still is foreign to many schools.

Fuhrer also defended the decision to seek a second charter from District 300 for its blended learning expansion, arguing the charter merely would serve as another “vehicle” for a limited staff to market and brand the service to districts across the state.

“I would do it through Cambridge Lakes ... but I would prefer two vehicles rather than one because it is cleaner,” Fuhrer said. “But I’m not precluded from doing it the other way.”

Northern Kane also has been using K12 Inc. to provide curriculum for its blended learning program, a partnership the charter proposal would continue.

The for-profit Virginia company has been criticized in the academic world for its obligation to shareholders and shoddy track record with student achievement.

Board members did not make mention of that relationship Monday. They now have 30 days to vote on the proposal from Northern Kane, which could appeal the decision to a state commission.

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