WORTHINGTON — The Minnesota Department of Education’s recent decision to suspend one of Independent School District 518’s web-based curriculum providers officially took effect Monday.

It’s an action affecting more than 550 students across the state that reportedly took the district, parents and curriculum provider alike by surprise.

Acting on complaints and a subsequent investigation, MDE announced its decision to suspend Harmony Educational Services, an educational service provider that was reportedly contracted exclusively in Minnesota with District 518’s Virtual Instruction By Excellence (VIBE) program.

District 518 Superintendent John Landgaard said the district felt it would have been good for kids to finish the school year with the program, which he said the district would have made adjustments in order to do so.

“But that’s not what MDE stated, so we’re going with it,” he said.

The district became aware of issues during last school year. Administration made the Board of Education aware of issues it reported working with MDE to correct in June 2019. In November, another complaint was reportedly filed, and MDE conducted an additional investigation into whether requirements specified in an improvement plan were being met.

VIBE Principal Doug Brands said although the district was aware of some concerns, a decision to suspend the program mid-school year seemed abrupt.

“We felt like we were making the improvements,” Brands said, adding that he knew there was potential that the relationship with Harmony may eventually end. “But I thought we’d get to the end of the school year.”

From Brands’ assessment, the biggest reason the program was ultimately recently suspended was due to teacher licensure issues. Teachers, who were employed by Harmony, were in place, but some were licensed in other states in which MDE requires a Minnesota teaching license.

“There were setbacks and hiccups there,” Brands said of getting teachers appropriately licensed.

According to an MDE spokesperson, the program, which served 561 students in grades K-8, had one teacher with the correct, valid license at the beginning of the school year. Although two other teachers obtained appropriate licensure after the year started and two others appeared to be in the process, the number of teachers was insufficient to provide full-time instruction to the number of students in the program.

MDE specifies that unless a waiver is granted, a student-teacher ratio of 40-to-1 be implemented in online programs. The district did not ask for a waiver, an MDE spokesperson reported.

Brands said the district was in the process of developing a plan and contract to transfer the teachers to District 518 staff, which was a recommendation from MDE to better help them meet reporting requirements.

It was reported that no District 518 staff is being cut due to the changes.

The district’s VIBE program had grown exponentially in the past couple years, which was similar to what the MDE reported experiencing in other approved web-based programs across the state.

The program had reportedly grown by approximately 250 students from the 2017-2018 school year to the 2018-2019 and continued to grow at the start of the current school year.

Students enrolled in the VIBE program are considered students of District 518, even though the vast majority didn’t attend any Worthington school district facility. The program was and is most popularly used as a supplement to home-school education.

That was also the root to some of the issues.

“(VIBE) appeals to homeschool families because you can get curriculum and work from home with your kids and be involved in your kid’s education that way,” Brands said, adding that even though the curriculum was delivered in-home, it fell under the public school umbrella with state mandates. “Sometimes that’s why (parents) choose to homeschool — to get away from those rules and regulations.”

Announcement produces more questions than answers

The mid-year changes took some parents by surprise, resulting in — for some — frustration and a feeling of being left hanging without clear answers.

MDE announced its decision with the district on Dec. 20. Parents enrolled in VIBE were reportedly notified Jan. 7 by District 518 administration of the changes and their options. It was requested that parents notify the district of their decision by Jan. 17.

The announcement led to confusion and unanswered questions, said Briana Sutherland, a Princeton-based parent of two elementary-aged children enrolled in VIBE for two years.

Sutherland said it was difficult to understand who bore responsibility for the program suspension. She also found it difficult to navigate between the three entities to receive answers to her questions.

“I wish they would have given us a warning,” added Kate Talash Jann, an Anoka parent of three students enrolled for the first year with VIBE, about keeping parents better informed of some of the issues and if there was a possibility of it ending.

Brands said once he became aware of the program’s suspension, he immediately made contact with K12 — the other online curriculum provider the district’s VIBE program contracts with to provide services for its high school learners — to see if it would logistically be able to accept the more than 500 students being serviced by Harmony.

Because of the timing with winter break, Brands said communication and information needed to make a decision continued through the first of the year.

The announcement to parents laid out their options: homeschool their children, enroll them in a school within their district; or continue with the VIBE program using a different web-based curriculum provider (K12). K12 was serving about 180 VIBE students before Harmony was suspended.

The district hasn’t determined exactly how many students are dropping the program, but it’s likely a significant number. Brands said the most popular response he’s received from parents is that they’re returning to homeschooling using their own curriculum.

‘We didn’t break our contract’

Because the program was connected to public education, it was the district’s responsibility that students received educational materials and technology to be successful in the program, Brands said.

Similar to how state aid works with brick and mortar schools, state aid was funneled by MDE to the district, which then contracted with Harmony. Harmony then was responsible for getting curriculum and technology in students’ hands.

According to Sutherland, parents signed a contract at the beginning of the school year acknowledging that if parents decided to unenroll their child — or their child was dropped during the school year due to not meeting requirements — technology would need to be returned. Now that the program has been suspended, parents are being instructed to return their technology if they’re not staying enrolled with VIBE.

Sutherland said there’s many parents that don’t feel that’s right.

“We were always led to believe that if we finished out the school year, (the district) didn’t want the technology back,” she said. “(In parents’) eyes, the program is getting shut down. Why should we need to return this equipment when we didn’t break our contract?”

Brands said the technology provided to families enrolled in VIBE is similar to students of the physical district who receive school-issued iPads. With the VIBE program, however, families got to choose which technology they wanted to be able to complete their school work. He suspects that’s what led to the confusion.

“The money was like Monopoly money,” Brands said, clarifying that individuals weren’t given physical money to spend, but given lists of needed materials that were approved and purchased by Harmony to deliver to families.

Because funds were used to purchase the equipment, it must be returned to the district. Other consumable materials like workbooks don’t need to be returned.

Late last week, Brands said the district was working to develop a buy-out option if parents wish to purchase their equipment.

The District 518 Board of Education was scheduled to consider declaring VIBE-provided technology as surplus property during its Tuesday evening meeting.

Sutherland said families also want to know what happens with unspent money for which they'd budgeted. Personally, she’d recently placed a curriculum order for the second semester.

That also leaves Talash Jann in a bind.

“We were doing our part in watching the videos, doing the worksheets, then they canceled the program and we don’t have funds to finish up,” she said.

Brands admitted that’s a messier situation, since the assumption at the beginning of the school year is that the program would continue through June.

Some families may have chosen to order their materials up front, while others budget throughout the school year. The school district paid Harmony on monthly installments, but now that the program has been suspended, funding is only continuing for the children remaining enrolled in VIBE.

Harmony couldn’t be reached before the print deadline, but in a letter to parents, Harmony said new curriculum that would have been purchased for the second semester will not be ordered. Harmony also noted that it will work with MDE to determine whether the program may be reinstated.

Harmony Ed - VIBE Update | Harmony Educational Services

Dear Harmony Families, As you are all aware, the Minnesota Department of Education has suspended the Harmony program at VIBE effective Jan. 20, 2020. This regrettable action has surprised us all and has caught us off guard. Late Friday afternoon, Jan. 3, Harmony was informed by VIBE of this action.

Employees were also given short notice, said Tina Vanderhoff, who taught a dramatic arts class in Elk River once a week at a voluntary program called Options Day. Available to families who used Harmony’s service, Options Day let students explore subjects that would be compared to brick and mortar schools’ electives.

Vanderhoff, who was employed by Harmony, said she was given seven days’ notice that the program would be suspended and she’d lose her job.

“Between those three entities, nobody could have come up with a better way to notify?” Vanderhoff asked of how the situation was handled between MDE, District 518 and Harmony.

Sutherland and Talash Jann said Options Day — which was also available in Albert Lea, Mankato, St. Cloud, Golden Valley and Owatonna — will be missed.

“That’s the most devastating part of this whole thing,” said Talash Jann. “(My kids) were really heartbroken when I told them, and I was really sad for them.”

“It’s not us as parents or the online teachers that are paying the price for this,” Sutherland said. “It’s our kids.”