Traverse City News and Events

UpNorth Virtual: A Solution For Parents, Or Student Poaching?

By Craig Manning | July 23, 2020

Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) is defending its decision to launch UpNorth Virtual, a new, full-time all-online learning program to K-12 students throughout the five-county region, while superintendents of smaller area districts say it’s an attempt to poach students during a time of uncertainty and upheaval.

“We started planning [UpNorth Virtual] about a month-and-a-half ago, but it actually has been on our minds since the end of last year,” says Heidi Skodack, director of school improvement for TCAPS. “We gave a survey at the end of May, and it indicated that 10 percent of our parents were considering another option, be it virtual education or just not sending their kids back to school. Our concern was, ‘What can we offer to our families and parents that would allow them that opportunity [without leaving TCAPS]?’”

Skodack describes UpNorth Virtual as “a fourth option” for delivering education to TCAPS students – the other three being in-classroom learning, all-remote curriculum delivered by TCAPS teachers, and a hybrid between the two. TCAPS will decide which approach to take closer to the start of school, and could adjust throughout the school year depending on what is allowed or deemed safe under Michigan guidelines. A student enrolled entirely in UpNorth Virtual, meanwhile, would have limited interaction with TCAPS teachers or fellow students and would be following an all-online learning approach regardless of how the pandemic situation might fluctuate throughout a semester.

Students enrolled in this program would still technically be TCAPS students, would be tied to specific TCAPS schools, have access to resources and support from TCAPS teachers or counselors if needed, and be eligible to participate in TCAPS sports or other extracurricular activities. UpNorth Virtual students would also still count as regular TCAPS students in the calculation for per-pupil funding.

While Suttons Bay Public Schools Superintendent Casey Petz acknowledges the need for school districts to plan for anything, he also feels the timing, name, and targeting of the TCAPS virtual program are suspect.

“When I saw the announcement come out from TCAPS, there's a couple of things that really struck me,” Petz tells The Ticker. “Naming it UpNorth Virtual was an unexpected thing, as was the timing on it. Most districts right now, we're working on completing our MI Safe Schools plans to prepare to go back to school, and we haven't had a chance to communicate that information out to families yet. And then out rolls this virtual school ahead of us talking to our own families, and it’s aiming at the entire five-county region. That just felt really predatory, to be honest.”

Petz was informed via phone call two weeks ago that TCAPS was about to launch an online learning option, but says he assumed the program would be “in alignment with what all the other districts are doing, which is creating a virtual school option pointed directly at their kids.” His worry is that, because TCAPS announced UpNorth Virtual before most districts in the region could communicate their fall strategies to families, parents feeling anxious about sending their kids back to school might make snap decisions to open-enroll with TCAPS. This type of student exodus would not only be a blow to smaller districts in terms of per-pupil funding but would also, Petz thinks, be the wrong choice for students.

“The best thing for the vast majority of our kids is to stay in their home districts and to continue to engage with their teachers, their social workers, their support staff, their administrators, and the other students and families,” Petz says. “If you ask educators what they would advise during this really uncertain time, I think most of them would tell you that now is the time to double down on the school districts we’re in and be very cognizant of minimizing transition and creating stability [for the students].”

When asked why TCAPS decided to open UpNorth Virtual to the whole five-county region rather than targeting just its own students, Skodack says there was no intention to draw pupils away from other districts. She also notes that UpNorth Virtual is not a fully proprietary system but is rather being offered by two existing online education platforms: Lincoln Learning for K-5 students and Edgenuity for 6-12. Any school or school district could feasibly set up similar offerings for their students.

“We thought about [this program] solely in service of our students and families and what we could provide to them,” Skodack says. “To set up an online school, the smallest school districts can do it as well as the largest, so you probably will see other school districts develop their own online programming.” Skodack adds that there has not been a huge surge in enrollment to the program just yet, and that most families seem to be keeping their options open. “That’s why it was really important to get information out to families now. We know that decisions probably aren't going to be made until we get closer to the beginning of the school year.”

Dr. Nick Ceglarek, superintendent for Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District (TBAISD), concurs with Skodack, saying that “most of our local districts in our five-county region are in the planning or exploratory stages of providing a fully remote option.” TBAISD serves 16 public school districts throughout Antrim, Benzie, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, and Leelanau counties, including TCAPS and Suttons Bay.

Not all local school districts are developing an online education option on the level of UpNorth Virtual, though. Neil Wetherbee, superintendent for Northport Public School, says his district – which only serves about 140 students – is unable to provide the kind of flexibility that TCAPS has with its new program.

“Given the size of my district, we don’t have much room to be creative with the laws,” Wetherbee explains. “As things are currently written by the state, if we are in phases 1-3, we will be remote like the end of last school year. If we are in phases 4-6, we’ll be open in person. We’d like to have some flexibility with remote offerings in phases 4-6, but we don’t with current pupil accounting rules. Although I have concerns with the rash of virtual options around the state, I prefer to focus on issues that I have control over.”

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