Last spring, Katie Rivera’s daughter came home from the St. Francis Parish School in Bakersfield with some unusual paperwork.

The school was pushing parents to sign their children up for a “unique pilot program” taught entirely online and run by a public school district in Los Angeles County.

Each student who enrolled in the Lennox Virtual Academy would get a free Chromebook computer to use at school, with access to online classes. All parents had to do was fill out the forms, authorizing St. Francis to share information about their finances and their children’s health with the Lennox School District a hundred miles away.

“This partnership is expected to bring many benefits for St. Francis students,” Principal Kelli Gruszka wrote to parents. “…it is IMPERATIVE that every family with students in grades 5th-8th, return the paperwork being sent home today…”

What the letter did not explain was the arrangement’s financial benefits. By enrolling these students, Lennox stood to earn millions in additional state funding. St. Francis would profit, too. As part of the deal, the school would be paid a fee for each participating student.

The proposal was part of an unorthodox expansion plan by a small public school district headquartered three miles from Los Angeles International Airport.

The Lennox Virtual Academy operated in what legal experts have called a murky regulatory environment. Even so, it stood out both for enrolling students already attending school elsewhere and for its willingness, in partnering with Catholic schools, to test the limits of California’s particularly strict interpretation of the separation of church and state.

The description of the pilot program alarmed Rivera, who is an attorney and could tell she was not being asked to sign an ordinary permission slip.

“It had red flags all over it,” she said of the paperwork, particularly one section that stated, “…all of our students in 5th-8th grade will need to be co-enrolled at both schools.”

Enrollment had been declining in the Lennox School District for over a decade by the time the district decided to open the virtual academy in 2016 as part of a concerted effort to attract more students. By then, the student population had fallen to 5,055, nearly 25% below what it had been in 2006. Lennox employees were being encouraged to recruit children of friends and family, said Supt. Kent Taylor, and officials were eager to welcome students from elsewhere who might want to transfer in.

Lennox Virtual Academy enrolled about 400 students last year, Taylor said.

“We’re trying to be on the cutting edge so we can make sure students’ lives get changed and their trajectory in the future can be great,” he said of the online school. “What’s really important here is what the student gets out of this.”

What Lennox got out of it was more kids, and more kids meant more money. That year, according to state education data, the district’s state funding increased by at least $3 million as overall enrollment rose, largely through students signed up for the virtual academy.

Catholic schools nationwide have been struggling with enrollment too, and some have been forced to close. Lennox’s offer of free classroom technology came at an opportune moment.

Like St. Francis, at least three Catholic schools in Southern California enrolled students in the virtual academy, according to interviews. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles said St. Joseph School in Hawthorne and St. John Chrysostom Catholic School in Inglewood signed contracts with Lennox last school year. Resurrection Academy in Fontana began participating this year, according to the Diocese of San Bernardino.

The partnership with Lennox “is a real positive thing for Resurrection Academy,” said John Andrews, a spokesman for the Diocese of San Bernardino. “I know maintaining enrollment is a struggle there and that having the means to do a technology initiative where you have one device per student is a real challenge.”

Chromebooks for every student, he said, “does create a sense of excitement and definitely makes the school more marketable for families in the Fontana and Rialto area.” Resurrection Academy students are expected to be online at least two hours a day, and Lennox has expanded the course options.

As for the nature of the partnership with Lennox, the diocese vetted it, he said.

The Los Angeles Archdiocese looked hard at the proposal too, said Superintendent of Catholic Schools Kevin Baxter.

There was plenty to like about what Lennox had to offer. Baxter said the school district paid the Catholic schools a monthly fee of $165 for each child enrolled. The district also upgraded the Wi-Fi network at St. John Chrysostom.

But as the year went on, the archdiocese grew concerned by its interactions with Lennox. Archdiocese lawyers wanted assurance that state and county education officials had approved of the virtual academy and its unusual co-enrollment arrangement. They had questions about the legality of enrolling Catholic school students in a public school program. And they wanted a face-to-face meeting with Lennox officials.

“We had a difficult time kind of getting answers and getting meetings scheduled,” Baxter said. “We thought it was probably in the best interest of our schools to discontinue the partnership.”

At the end of the school year, St. Joseph and St. John Chrysostom exited the program and returned the Chromebooks to Lennox.

In Bakersfield, where St. Francis was the only Catholic school that agreed to try out the program, the Diocese of Fresno reviewed Lennox’s proposal and declared it sound, said Diocese Supt. Mona Faulkner.

The Chromebooks came with one requirement, Faulkner said: The Catholic students had to log on to Acellus Academy, the virtual school’s coursework program, for a set amount of time each day. This allowed Lennox to claim to the state that the students, while going to Catholic school, were enrolled full time in the Lennox Virtual Academy.

On Aug. 4, the St. Francis principal emailed parents to say the school would extend the partnership for another year.

But two weeks later — a few days after The Times contacted St. Francis with questions — the school abruptly reversed itself. On Aug. 18, Faulkner emailed Times reporters to say St. Francis had ended its relationship with Lennox. She acknowledged that Lennox had paid St. Francis and said that the money had gone into a financial aid fund for students, but she declined to say how much the school received.

Asked why the Catholic school had cut ties with Lennox, Faulkner said that the online curriculum offered by the district didn’t meet St. Francis’ standards.

“My only concern as superintendent was whether the curriculum was rigorous enough and had enough depth for our students and the school decided it did not,” she said. “There were certain chapters we were not going to teach at all because they may have differences with our faith.”

Full story at The LA Times.