January 2011

Executive Summary

Since 1999, Apex Learning has provided online courses in math, science, English, social studies, world languages, fine arts, and health/physical education to more than 4,700* school districts across the United States. The adaptability of Apex Learning allows districts to implement the online courses in a variety of settings and programs according to the specific needs of their students and the different viewpoints of district leaders regarding where and how learning should occur.

This study examines the various ways that three districts—Auburn School District (Auburn) in Auburn, Wash., Volusia County Schools (Volusia) in Volusia County, Fla., and Wichita Public Schools (Wichita) in Wichita, Kan.—are using Apex Learning to help students who were not being served well by the traditional school system, or who, in many cases, had already left the system. There are strong similarities in many of their online learning programs, but also some key differences.

Similarities in programs
Auburn, Volusia, and Wichita had initially used server-based computer courses for their dropout- prevention-and-recovery and credit-recovery programs before making the switch to Apex Learning for cost and convenience reasons as well as rigor. All three used some form of blended learning—where students took the online courses in brick-and-mortar environments supervised by adults who were on hand to help students with problems as they confronted them. And all three were able to graduate students each year who they otherwise would not have were it not for these programs.

Differences in programs
Auburn’s online learning programs cost more money than the district’s traditional schools because of class-size limits and access to district funding sources that Volusia and Wichita do not possess. Volusia and Wichita’s online learning programs, however, cost significantly less than their district’s traditional schools. Although all three districts run a variety of online learning programs, all three have set very different policies, parameters, and processes around their programs. For example, explicit policies in Auburn prohibit virtual-school teachers from communicating with their students via means other than phone and e-mail, whereas Volusia encourages virtual teachers to work with their students using primarily virtual classrooms and instant messenger programs. In addition, although Auburn’s online learning programs receive far more per-pupil funding than Volusia’s and Wichita’s, the bureaucratic requirements to receive those funds in some cases are far more onerous and focused on input metrics around time rather than simple enrollment on various “count days” on given days in certain months, as is the case in Volusia and Wichita. And all three staff their online learning programs in different ways and put different requirements in place for students—as some programs expect students to work on only one course at a time whereas others expect students to work on several.

Student performance
Comparing the results of the online learning programs and finding out which approaches were the most successful was impossible because of a lack of data in all three districts—even to the point of making it difficult to know without a concerted manual effort how many unique students an online learning program had served over the course of a given time period in some cases.


*There are a number of districts that only use Apex Learning for a single or few Apex Learning Virtual School enrollments as needed (e.g., online courses for individual students) that do not renew a contract year-to-year. As a result, this number is much larger than the annual number of districts contracting with Apex Learning.


  • Katherine Mackey
    Katherine Mackey