June 24, 2008

What Happened at Christa McAuliffe Academy?

It pioneered online education in Central Washington, venturing into the world of virtual schools when they were -- virtually -- nonexistent.

Along the way, the founder became a symbol of distant learning's meteoric rise in popularity, students signed up from around the world and staff members moved into plush, high-rise offices in downtown Yakima. But something went awry. By this spring, the founder was gone, the offices abandoned and an out-of-state educator had taken charge.

It's a story of mounting debts, competition between school districts, no centralized oversight, a financial officer charged with embezzlement at a prior firm and, finally, a pitch for chocolate candy.

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With little money, few backers and not much more than a cramped office, he gambled on an educational dream more than two decades ago.

It lasted through four location changes, matriculated thousands of students, employed dozens of teachers and enjoyed a visibility that reached beyond Yakima to other states and foreign countries.

Now that dream is gone.

Or sold anyway.

Glen Blomgren, founder and executive director of the Christa McAuliffe Academy (CMA), a virtual school based in Yakima, no longer owns, or is affiliated with, the school.

Earlier this spring, Blomgren sold the digital learning program to a company called Achieve Online Inc., headed by a Californian, for an undisclosed amount.

Although new owner Christopher Geis of San Diego says he intends to continue the online educational offerings inaugurated here by CMA, it marks the end of an era for the 63-year-old Blomgren.

Reached by telephone at his Yakima home, Blomgren declined to explain why he sold CMA, saying "I'm not talking about the school."

He also wouldn't comment on why he stayed on briefly at the school before separating completely.

However, he did mention that he had "sought out a group of people who could carry on our philosophy" as buyers for his school.

Blomgren reported that he has started an Internet business and is working at home. He's listed online as a contact for a firm that does multi-level marketing of antioxidant chocolate bars.

He's also campaign manager for Bob McLaughlin, running in the Republican primary for the 14th District state House seat, and county chairman for the re-election campaign of Attorney General Rob McKenna, also a Republican.

When Blomgren launched the original version of CMA, it was a two-person operation, counseling parents in how to home-school their children.

That facility, called the Yakima Learning Center, opened 23 years ago in a small office on Butterfield Road in Yakima.

The center morphed, in 1988, into CMA, originally a year-round high school where teens worked at their own pace every morning on a Christian-based curriculum in a Fruitvale Boulevard building.

Later, the school expanded to larger offices in two different locations on Washington Avenue near the airport, emphasizing computer-based learning, and ultimately moved three years ago to its largest, and fanciest, headquarters on the 11th floor of The Tower in downtown Yakima.

There the school created two different channels: CMA remained the online school for students enrolling from anywhere in the world, and a separate entity, called Achieve Online, became the online school for Washington state students.

Evidence of CMA's ability to attract online students from distant locales is one high-profile enrollee from Hawaii. Micah Nelson, son of country singer Willie Nelson, traveled to Yakima to graduate from the school earlier this month. Willie Nelson also attended the ceremonies.

The school's split into two tracks came after the state Legislature passed a law allowing for the expansion of digital learning programs. Requiring that virtual schools link with an existing school district, the law allotted funding from $4,600 to $4,800 per online student to the supervising school district. The district then passed on the funds to the online school, minus administrative fees of 15 percent to 20 percent.

The new school, post-Blomgren, still offers two separate tracks, one for in-state and the other for out-of-state students. It runs an office at 4702 Tieton Drive and links with the Kittitas School District, just as CMA did before the sale.

Jerry Harding, who is retiring as Kittitas superintendent this month, pointed to cash-flow problems as the reason Blomgren sold the school.

Acknowledging that CMA had financial troubles, Blomgren said, "We're trying to take care of all the debts and resolve all those issues."

Had Blomgren linked with a larger school district, some of the cash-flow problems would have been moot. Kittitas' total enrollment, kindergarten through 12th grade, is about 600 students.

As Harding explained it, CMA got mired in a funding bind because of the method in which small high schools receive funds from the state.

If the school's enrollment is under 300, it receives a lump sum of state funds. If enrollment goes up or down, the funding basically stays the same. The only way it changes is if enrollment at the high school rises above 300 students. Then more state money kicks in for each additional student.

Kittitas High School ended the school year with 184 students. So, more than 116 additional students would have had to enroll, either in person or online, for CMA to start getting paid for more students.

That simply didn't happen. The total number of online and in-person high school students averaged 276 this year, according to Jessica Gleason, online-school liaison for the Kittitas district.

As Blomgren noted, "There weren't enough students generating enough income."

The money woes didn't begin there, however. Even before CMA partnered with Kittitas, the online school was losing money. CMA's 2006 tax forms show an operating loss of $194,683.

Online schools can be deceptively expensive to operate, Blomgren lamented, pointing to intense competition for state educational dollars.

"It's tough to compete without deep pockets," he said.

Generating a positive cash flow during an online school's early years can be problematic, said Geis, the new CEO.

"With any business you expect a loss for at least two to three years."

Declining to say how much he paid for the school, Geis said Achieve Online Inc. is addressing the cash-flow problem by actively recruiting more students in Washington.

A former teacher, Geis also has a business degree. He said he's worked in alternative education for 10 years.

He's joined with two Washington residents as partners to run the school: Jared Jakeman of Yakima, technology director, and Tamra Excell of Kennewick, director of curriculum and instruction.

Excell, a certified teacher for the past 12 years, noted that the school specializes in accommodating individual learning styles: "Our goal is to be the model program for the state of Washington," she said.

Geis emphasized accountability at the new school.

"Nationally, 30 to 40 percent of students drop out of public school. That's not acceptable," he said. "We're looking to achieve a 90 percent success rate."

But even discounting financial troubles, online schools have not all had smooth sailing educationally, noted one state educator.

Martin Mueller, assistant superintendent for student support in the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction in Olympia, said studies performed in other states point to a high attrition rate in virtual schools.

"The data show that many students are enrolling but not succeeding," he said.

Because online education has grown so rapidly -- OSPI's Mueller said that last year there were nearly 4,000 online students out of 1.1 million Washington public school students -- the system is struggling with some stress.

"There's a fair amount of tension created when a district enrolls a student from another district in their online school," Mueller pointed out.

The majority of students enrolled in Achieve Online through Kittitas last year came from out of district. About 60 percent live in Yakima and the Lower Valley.

As competition increases for students and dollars, there's been no centralized oversight established in Washington of online schools.

"The accountability burden is on the individual school district, but there isn't an additional monitoring system from the state," Mueller explained. "But to imply they aren't regulated isn't accurate."

The subject of oversight has been raised in Yakima because of CMA's financial losses. Questions have arisen over whether there's a connection between the school's monetary plight and its financial director, who now holds the same spot with Achieve Online Inc.

Dave Lenihan has been indicted for embezzling more than $2 million from two fruit warehouses in Yakima where he worked before joining CMA several years ago.

Blomgren, however, is adamant that there's no link between Lenihan and CMA's financial troubles.

"He had nothing to do with it," Blomgren said.

Acknowledging that it may appear unusual to retain a financial officer who is under indictment for embezzlement, Geis said Lenihan apprised the new company of his past when the school was sold.

"It is a concern, I'm not going to sugarcoat it, but we can't make wholesale changes in staff; you need some stability," Geis said.

He added that the company is monitoring finances carefully.

Lenihan's wife, Kathy, who served as an educational mentor for CMA, also works for the new school.

Curriculum director Excell noted that the new school employs seasoned educators with experience in personalized learning.

"We have the best of the best," she said.

For her part, Gleason in Kittitas is sanguine about the future of Achieve Online Inc. In fact, the school board voted June 17 to renew Achieve Online Inc.'s contract for the next school year.

"It's a great program for kids with no other option," Gleason noted.

Geis seconded the sentiment.

"We've seen a tremendous rise in interest in the school, and we're looking to increase enrollment and educational opportunities."

And even though his connection to CMA has been severed, Blomgren is still a supporter of online education.

"I absolutely believe in Internet schools," he said.

As to whether he would become involved in Internet education again, Blomgren said, "I never say never."

A timeline of Yakima's online school

--October 1985: Glen Blomgren opens Yakima Learning Center, a precursor to Christa McAuliffe Academy (CMA) to help home-schooled students and their parents.

--September 1988: The learning center changes its name to CMA and its focus to students who do schoolwork at the facility under the tutelage of teachers.

--May 2005: A state bill is signed into law, allowing for the expansion and funding of virtual schools.

--September 2005: CMA, which has become an Internet-based school, with students working at home, moves from quarters on Washington Avenue to The Tower downtown.

--January 2007: CMA, through a new service called Achieve Online, partners with the Kittitas School District to offer online classes to students anywhere in Washington for free.

*February 2008: Blomgren sells CMA to a company called Achieve Online Inc., headed by Christopher Geis from San Diego.

Information session

Achieve Online Inc. is hosting an information session June 26 in Ellensburg.The event runs from 6-7:30 p.m. at the Hal Holmes Community Center, 209 N. Ruby St. For more information about Achieve Online, contact Tamra Excell,  360-518-6161 , or call the Yakima office, 575-4989.