Enrollment in LA's Virtual Schools Is Increasing As COVID Fears Spread Among Parents

Sarah Favot

Favot is an award-winning journalist and adjunct instructor at USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. She previously was an investigative and data reporter at national education news site The 74 and local news site LA School Report. She's also worked at the Los Angeles Daily News. She was a Livingston Award finalist in 2011 and holds a Master's degree in journalism from Boston University and BA from the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada.

Enrollment in LA's Virtual Schools Is Increasing As COVID Fears Spread Among Parents
Photo by Matt Ragland on Unsplash

The pandemic has been wrenching for parents as schools fling their doors open and throngs of unvaccinated children return to the classroom.

With the delta variant raging and child hospitalizations shooting up, virtual charter schools are making their pitch and it's working. Enrollment is ballooning.


In Los Angeles, one national charter network is marketing its program as an option for parents fearful about the spread of COVID.

Stride Inc, a publicly traded company that runs virtual charter school network K12, promoted its California schools called California Virtual Academies in an announcement encouraging parents to enroll. On Twitter, the company touts online learning as giving "families an option that is not only safe, but prioritizes student growth and success."

But online charters are controversial even among charter school supporters and past research shows the virtual schools have a weaker academic performance than traditional schools. The state has clamped down on them amid a spat of financial misdeeds, including one virtual charter school where its two founders pleaded guilty to felony charges of conspiracy to commit theft of public funds.

Still, enrollment in virtual charter schools surged during the pandemic. Enrollment at K12, one of the biggest national operators, increased 57% last year. In Los Angeles, which boasts more enrollment in charter schools than anywhere in the nation, its schools saw enrollment jump 40% compared to this time in 2019, according to the school.

The Los Angeles Unified School District has also seen a jump in students who are enrolled in its online independent study program.

Honestly I can't imagine her stepping foot on a campus right now.

Angela Covil, CAVA's director of high schools, said the virtual schools are "teacher supported," rather than "teacher directed." Students meet with their teachers every day for about one-and-a-half to two hours in elementary and middle school and three to three-and-a-half hours in high school. Students spend four to six hours on coursework each day. The curriculum can be accessed anywhere and it includes videos and animation with assessments built in, so teachers can monitor student progress, she said.

Some parents that recently enrolled their children turned to the schools that already had a virtual curriculum, rather than stay in a school district that was learning how to teach online on the fly.

"We've been doing it for years and so we have all those systems set up and established," Covil said.

She said there are generally three types of new parents who are enrolling their children: those who have health worries, those who want stability in case COVID-19 worsens and instruction at district schools goes online again, and those who saw their child thrive in the online environment during the pandemic and want that to continue.

Roxann Nazario is one of those parents whose daughter, Scarlett, thrived in an online environment because of her social anxiety. Nazario said she saw a weight lift off of Scarlett's shoulders in March 2020 when schools closed.

Her charter middle school at the time, Girls Athletic Leadership School, switched swiftly to an online curriculum where instructional videos and assignments were posted online through Google Classroom and students weren't required to sit on Zoom for several hours a day. Nazario saw her daughter's grades improve.

But the school changed course in the fall of 2020, requiring students to be on Zoom from 8:30 a.m. until 12:30 p.m. and Scarlett burned out quickly.

Nazario, who works as a parent engagement coordinator for parent advocacy group Speak UP, talked to parents who were raving about an online charter called iLEAD and after meeting with teachers and school administrators, she enrolled her daughter in the school, where live instruction is optional.

"Honestly I can't imagine her stepping foot on a campus right now. I think it would be very difficult for her especially since it's been so long," Nazario said. "I'm excited to see how well she can do with a program that's very well established and very customized that I think is going to be a good fit to her, but we'll see and we'll evaluate that as we go along."


Virtual Learning Has Its Limits

But several studies have criticized cyber schools, finding that many of its academic programs pale in comparison to traditional brick-and-mortar schools.

One national study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University found that virtual charter schools across the nation have an " overwhelming negative impact" on students.

"It was desperately bad," said Macke Raymond, who directed the study. "It was as if the kids didn't go to school at all in math." Though she noted the 2015 study was based on data from 2013.

And in 2016 even the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a charter school advocacy group warned legislators about the poor performance of virtual charters in a report.

More recent national research is needed and Raymond said she is embarking on a new national study next month that will answer the question of whether online charters have gotten any better.

"One would hope that a program that was as vulnerable as we showed it to be in 2015 would sort of pick itself up by the bootstraps and do something different," Raymond said.

Covil said she hopes that parents look past some of the negative publicity about virtual charters and do their own research.

"A lot of great things are happening in these schools," Covil said. "There are students that are really thriving. We just have so many great things happening with our kids, and we hear so much great feedback from our parents."

Learning Loss

As teachers in traditional schools scrambled to shift their curriculum online and students lacked the social interaction of being in a classroom with teachers and their peers, studies show children suffered a "learning loss" or "COVID slide."

A McKinsey & Company report on the 2020-21 academic year found that on average students were five months behind in math and four months behind in reading by the end of the school year. And the achievement gap between low-income and students of color and their white peers worsened with students in majority Black schools ending the year with six months of "unfinished learning" and students in low-income schools with seven.

NWEA used its MAP Growth adaptive assessments that schools can voluntarily give to their students three times a year to analyze the impact of the pandemic. Results from 5.5 million students in grades 3 through 8 who took the tests showed that students made reading and math gains in 2020-21, but at a lower rate when compared to before the pandemic.

For example, in the spring of 2021, median math scores fell 12 percentile points compared to the spring of 2019.

Following the publication of the NWEA report, Stride Inc. issued its own response, saying its students did not experience the same learning loss as their peers.

"In fact, they were more likely to maintain or grow academically than to slide," it said.

Investigation

CAVA itself was under investigation by the California Attorney General's Office before reaching an $8.5 million settlement in 2016 over allegations that the network published misleading advertisements about students' academic progress, parent satisfaction and class sizes.

For example, the network didn't include a "large number of students whose test results did not show significant change," when it promoted its students' academic performance, according to the complaint.

The state also alleged the schools were improperly inflating attendance numbers, reaping more state education dollars, which are allocated based on average daily attendance.

The AG's office was also looking into the schools' services for students and families with limited English proficiency, and the school's support for those students with special needs.

Under the settlement, the schools admitted no wrongdoing and the settlement funds repaid the state for the cost of the investigation.

"Improvements to accessibility were already in our internal plans and did not change our multi-year capital plans," a K12 spokesperson said. "We have always tried to continually improve accessibility, mobility, teacher tools, and student engagement, and will continue to do so."

These types of academic problems and financial misdeeds that occur at some virtual charters helped provoke a two-year moratorium on new online charter schools signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2019, which was set to expire at the end of this year, but was extended through 2024.

In California, charter schools are publicly funded, yet independently operated. Traditional public school supporters oppose charter schools because they say money is drained from district schools, as state funding is based on enrollment.

For parents who want to keep their children online this school year, there are limited options.

Newsom and the state legislature ordered that school districts must offer in person instruction this fall unless it's through an independent study program, but it authorized independent study for a student "whose health would be put at risk by in-person instruction, as determined by the parent or guardian."

The legislature is hashing out a new bill that aims at improving the independent study program, such as establishing a minimum amount of live instruction per day.

"Many, many policymakers are trying to put a different standard into this conversation that they don't hold the district schools to, but they do want to hold the virtual charter schools to," Raymond said. "That's the story that's happening in California."

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🏰 Disney's Epic Investment Stands Out Amidst Gaming Industry Layoffs

Christian Hetrick

Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

🔦 Spotlight

In the midst of widespread gaming industry layoffs, a glimmer of positive news emerges as Disney announces a significant move: a $1.5 billion investment in Epic Games. 🏰💰🐭

Image Source: Disney

Disney's $1.5 billion investment in Epic Games, disclosed late Wednesday, signals a strategic alignment aimed at expanding the success of "Fortnite." The deal enhances Epic's growth prospects after financial setbacks, including layoffs, and strengthens the partnership between the two companies. With Disney gaining a larger equity stake in Epic, the collaboration will broaden the integration of beloved Disney franchises like Marvel, Star Wars, Pixar, and Avatar into the game, potentially boosting its appeal and longevity. This significant investment underscores Disney's commitment to interactive entertainment and signifies a shift towards games as a primary revenue stream, aligning with the growing trend of digital engagement among younger demographics. Moreover, the potential for crossover sales of physical Disney products within "Fortnite" and the exploration of new content distribution channels are just some of the opportunities arising from this partnership.

For LA tech, the Disney-Epic Games partnership represents a validation of the region's burgeoning tech and gaming ecosystem. The substantial investment in Epic, who maintains a large Los Angeles office with 1,000+ employees (according to LinkedIn), reflects confidence in the LA’s talent pool and innovation potential. Additionally, this partnership between two industry giants fosters an environment for further collaboration, investment, and growth within LA's tech sector. As Disney and Epic Games deepen their ties and explore new avenues for content integration and distribution, it not only elevates the prominence of LA as a tech hub but also stimulates economic growth and job creation in the region. This partnership highlights LA's unique position as a hub where technology and entertainment converge. With its ability to integrate diverse industries, LA is driving innovation and expansion in digital entertainment. 🚀💸🎮

🤝 Venture Deals

LA Companies

  • ProducePay, a financing and marketplace platform for the fresh produce market, raised a $38M Series D led by Syngenta Group Ventures joined by Commonfund, Highgate Private Equity, G2 Venture Partners, Anterra Capital, Astanor Ventures, Endeavor8, Avenue Venture Opportunities, Avenue Sustainable Solutions, and Red Bear Angels. - learn more
  • Blush, an invite-only dating app that drives users to local businesses on dates, raised a $7M Seed Round from individuals like Naval Ravikant. - learn more
  • Mogul, a startup founded last year that provides an overview of an artist's royalty earnings and identifies areas where money is owed but has not yet been collected, raised a $1.9 million seed round from Wonder Ventures, United Talent Agency, AmplifyLA, and Creator Partners. - learn more
  • Avnos, a hybrid direct air capture startup, raised a $36M Series A led by NextEra Energy and joined by Safran Corporate Ventures, Shell Ventures, Envisioning Partners, and Rusheen Capital Management. - learn more
  • AI.fashion, startup whose mission is to help retailers enhance the online shopping experience by providing consumers with virtual try-ons and personalized fashion recommendations, raised a $3.6M Seed Round led by Neo. - learn more
  • Suma Wealth, startup that aims to demystify financial topics and provide culturally relevant content, virtual experiences, and resources to help Latino users navigate financial challenges and opportunities, raised a $2.2M Seed Round . Radicle Impact led, and was joined by Vamos Ventures, OVO fund and the American Heart Association Impact Fund. - learn more
  • 222, a startup that helps users discover their city and meet new people through unique social experiences, raised a $2.5M Seed Round. Investors included 1517 Fund, General Catalyst, Best Nights VC, Scrum Ventures, and Upfront Ventures. - learn more
  • LimaCharlie, a security operations cloud platform, raised a $10.2M Series A led by Sands Capital. - learn more
  • Polycam, an app that uses a smartphone’s sensors to capture 3D scans of objects, raised an $18M Series A co-led by Left Lane Capital and Adjacent, and joined by Adobe Ventures and individuals like Chad Hurley and Shaun Maguire. -learn more.

LA Venture Funds

Actively Raising

  • ReelCall, Inc., an entertainment technology company focused on powerful apps and platforms that help build and maintain the professional network of connections vital to career growth, is raising a $850K Pre-Seed Round. - learn more
  • CZero, a startup building software to decarbonize logistics for logistics businesses and goods business through a vetted marketplace and optimization software. - learn more
  • Couri, a technology startup addressing last-mile delivery issues, is raising a $450K Pre-Seed Round at a $2.2M post money valuation. - learn more
  • Sweetie, a marketplace to help people plan date nights, is raising a $1.5M Pre Seed Round. - learn more
  • StartupStarter, an investment platform that provides real-time data and analytics on startups, is raising an $850K Angel Round. - learn more

If you’re a founder raising money in Los Angeles, give us a shout, and we’d love to include you in the newsletter!

Venture Waves, Climate Tech Wins, and Silicon Beach's Ongoing Evolution

Christian Hetrick

Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

Anduril Seeks $1.5B in VC Funds

Defense company Anduril Industries Inc., based in Costa Mesa and founded by Palmer Luckey, is seeking to raise $1.5 billion in fresh funds to boost its valuation to $12.5 billion or more, according to sources quoted by The Information. This fundraising effort, if successful, would mark one of the largest venture capital rounds of the year.

Image Source: Anduril

Anduril recently secured a contract to develop and test small unmanned fighter jet prototypes under the Air Force’s Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) program, beating out major defense companies like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman. Alongside General Atomics, Anduril will design, manufacture, and test these aircraft, with a final multibillion-dollar production decision expected in fiscal year 2026. This program aims to deliver at least 1,000 combat aircraft to fly in concert with manned platforms and is part of the Air Force’s Next Generation Air Dominance initiative. Central to Anduril’s success in this contract is the Fury autonomous air vehicle, acquired through the purchase of Blue Force Technologies. This victory underscores Anduril's rapid advancement in the defense sector, aligning with Luckey's vision of building faster and more cost-effective defense assets. - learn more

Los Angeles Ranks Number 1 in Emerging Climate Tech Hub

The 2024 Emerging Climate Tech Hubs Report by Revolution highlights Los Angeles as a burgeoning center for climate tech innovation. LA's growth in this sector is driven by its diverse talent pool, strong research institutions, and a culture of environmental consciousness. The city's unique mix of legacy industries, such as entertainment and aerospace, alongside emerging tech companies, positions it as a pivotal player in the climate tech landscape. This shift reflects a broader trend of decentralized climate tech funding across the U.S., reducing the historical dominance of California's traditional hubs. - learn more

Silicon Beach: Looking Back, Moving Forward

Assessing the overall health of the startup market is challenging, especially as venture capital funding has decreased by an average of 61% from 2021 to 2023 across the top VC markets in the US. Markets with robust ecosystems in AI, SaaS, Biotech, Healthtech, and Fintech appear to be weathering the downturn better than those focused on Consumer and Gaming industries, areas where Los Angeles traditionally excels.

Percent Change In VC Funding By Region

CB Insights

LA Times paints a rather bleak outlook on the Los Angeles tech scene noting venture capital funding in Greater Los Angeles plummeted 73% from 2021 to 2022. Silicon Beach, once a vibrant tech corridor, currently faces high vacancy rates and lacks late-stage financiers, especially in the AI sector. However, there are positive signs, including growth in aerospace startups and increased venture capital investment in early 2024, suggesting a potential rebound for LA's tech ecosystem.

While LA may not be exceeding expectations during this period, its tech ecosystem warrants a nuanced evaluation, given the broader market dynamics and its strong performance in specific sectors. Reach out to us with your thoughts.

🚀 SpaceX gears up for another stellar year, active raises, and more

Christian Hetrick

Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

Happy Friday Los Angeles! You made it through the first week of 2024!

🔦 Spotlight

Elon Musk may be a divisive (albeit entertaining) figure, but the continued success of SpaceX is pivotal for the aerospace industry in Los Angeles and more broadly around the world.

Image Source: SpaceX webcast

What happened with SpaceX in 2023?

  • Elon Musk challenged Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg to a cage fight.
  • SpaceX launched 96 successful missions with its Falcon series of rockets, a 57% increase over its previous annual record.
  • SpaceX conducted two test flights of the largest and most powerful rocket ever built, Starship.
  • Roughly two-thirds of SpaceX's launches in 2023 were devoted to building out Starlink, the company's satellite-internet megaconstellation.
  • Isaacson’s Elon Musk biography was published in September including everything from Musk’s tumultuous relationship with his father to his work ethic and “demon mode”.

Moving forward what can we expect from SpaceX and its controversial founder? Continued innovation pushing the aerospace industry to new limits? Yes. More drama? Without a doubt.

Here is some of what is to come in 2024:

🤝 Venture Deals

Just Announced

Check back next week!

LA Exits

  • CG Oncology, an Irvine, CA-based developer of immunotherapies for bladder cancer, filed for a $100M IPO. It plans to list on the Nasdaq (CGON) with Morgan Stanley as left lead underwriter, and has raised around $317m in VC funding. - learn more
  • McNally Capital agreed to sell Advanced Micro Instruments, a Costa Mesa, CA-based maker of gas analyzers and sensing technologies, to Enpro (NYSE: NPO). - learn more

Actively Raising

  • ReelCall, Inc., an entertainment technology company focused on powerful apps and platforms that help build and maintain the professional network of connections vital to career growth, is raising a $850K Pre-Seed Round. - learn more
  • CZero, a hard-tech startup that is developing a technology for decarbonizing natural gas, is raising a $1.5M Seed Round. - learn more
  • Couri, a technology startup addressing last-mile delivery issues, is raising a $450K Pre-Seed Round at a $2.2M post money valuation. - learn more
  • Sweetie, a marketplace to help people plan date nights, is raising a $250K Angel Round. - learn more
  • StartupStarter, an investment platform that provides real-time data and analytics on startups, is raising an $850K Angel Round. - learn more

If you’re a founder raising money in Los Angeles, give us a shout, and we’d love to include you in the newsletter!

📅 LA Tech Calendar

Sunday, January 7th

Wednesday, January 10th

  • Startup Cafe: Networking with a Kick - Entrepreneurs, Startups, and Tech Enthusiasts join together to meet and connect with like-minded people, industry professionals and investors, while enjoying a nice cup of coffee in Venice at The KINN. This week’s interactive discussion about AI’s evolution in entertainment will feature Dr. Sam Khoze and Rachel Joy Victor.
  • Venice Tech Happy Hour- Join Startup Coil and FoundrHaus Wednesday evening and enjoy the sunset from the rooftop, grab a bite overlooking Abbot Kinney, and mingle with other tech enthusiasts and entrepreneurs by the bar on the patio.

Have an awesome event coming up? Reach out to be featured on next week’s Newsletter!

📙 What We’re Reading

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