Sask. government rejected offer of help from online school with 90% graduation rate

Sitting in front of her laptop inside her Regina home this week, Lanea Lafontaine reviews her math homework with an online teacher.

Then she helps her younger brother with his science lesson before they head out to volunteer at a care home and do some Christmas shopping with their mom. On other days, the aspiring doctor takes afternoon guitar or martial arts lessons.

“I really like this school,” Lanea said. “It provides the flexibility that I need. I can finish my school at anytime of the day, as well as reach out to teachers with the confidence that they’ll respond to me.”

Lanea, 15, is one of hundreds of students attending the Saskatoon-based Flex ED online school, a private but government-funded and tuition-free institution.

It’s one of more than a dozen online schools across the province, but it stands out because its graduation rates over the past two years were 85 and 90 per cent, while the average graduation rate for full-time online students across the province is just 44 per cent. The majority fail or drop out before obtaining their high school diploma.

Earlier this month, the government announced it would centralize online education across the province in partnership  with the distance learning centre headquartered at the Sun West School Division in west-central Saskatchewan. It had an online graduation rate for its full-time students of just 26 per cent, according to the provincial auditor.

Lanea Lafontaine helps her brother with a science lesson, part of the teaching and mentoring methods used by their Saskatoon-based online school, Flex ED. (Vashisth Trivedi/CBC)

The Education Ministry did not select Flex ED with its excellent graduation rates, even though its officials have repeatedly offered to help.

“I don’t know why they haven’t taken us up on any offers for help because, you know, we’ve had 17 years experience, we have highly trained staff and I myself have my masters degree in online education,” Flex ED principal Ann Cook said.

“We embraced an innovative and collaborative approach and so we continue to try to work with the ministry and others as much as we can. If they would accept our offers, we would be happy to work with them.”

Cook showed CBC News email exchanges with Ministry of Education officials dating back more than two years. She offered free consultation at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to help teachers and officials scrambling to move students online.

“Thank you for your offer. At this time we are not feeling the need for any consulting services in this area,” a ministry official wrote.

Decision a surprise

Cook says she was surprised to hear about the plan to centralize online learning with Sun West named as the partner.

“We weren’t invited to participate in any tendering process, if there was one, but we certainly could help the ministry. We have a system that is well-established and we definitely could help others,” she said.

Cook pointed to the report by Saskatchewan’s auditor this year that said Sun West needs to ensure teachers communicate more frequently with students, create better rules to ensure teachers don’t fall far behind on marking, and update courses have not been modified in more than a decade.

Liu Lafontaine, second from right, said she’s glad she moved her kids from the Sun West School Division’s online school to Saskatoon-based Flex ED. She hopes the government will halt plans to partner with Sun West on a provincial centralization project. (Vashisth Trivedi)

Flex ED has a sophisticated, real-time tracking system to ensure students don’t fall through the cracks, Cook says, adding its courses are updated annually and sometimes more often. Cook says every child who chooses online education should get the support Lanea and her brother receive. 

Education Minister Dustin Duncan declined interview requests. In an email, ministry officials highlighted Sun West’s years of online experience, but did not answer questions about its 26 per cent graduation rate.

Kelsey Shields, a principal in the town of Esterhazy who just completed her doctoral degree in online education, says the government’s decision to reject Flex ED doesn’t make sense.

The government should at least talk to Cook and her staff, says Shields, whose childen study online.

“I’m not exactly sure what they do differently but it would be intriguing to know,” Shields said. “It’s been successful for them, obviously. I do hope the government does look and start to ask questions about what everyone is doing.”

Sun West support lacking, parent says

The Lafontaine children attended Sun West first, but their mother, Liu Lafontaine, says they weren’t getting support: There was little communication among teachers, students and parents.

She transferred them to Flex ED, and says she’s not surprised by the tremendous difference in graduation rates. She says the government is partnering with the wrong school.

“I would not want my children to go to a school where the graduation statistics are 26 per cent,” Lafontaine said. “Our province should be ensuring those schools with higher statistics can continue on, and that we put forth students that graduate and do good for our province, our community and all of Canada.”

Flex ED’s future is unclear. Catholic and private schools are exempt from centralization at the moment, but Cook says it appears Flex ED and others might have to conform to Sun West’s model.

She says she has not heard back from Education Minister Dustin Duncan after expressing her concerns this month.

University of Saskatchewan assistant professor Paula MacDowell says the government has mishandled the file, but there is still time to admit mistakes and get it right.

“Students do need to graduate. If [Flex ED] is helping students to finish, there is a lot to learn from them,” MacDowell said. “I would love to hear why they have the high success rates.”

The Education Ministry “should take some time and not make decisions before talking to people,” she said.

“Let’s build on all this knowledge. If they have figured some things out, let’s learn from that. And then let’s all be open and transparent. Tell us why, and make it public.”

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