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The reality of virtual schools

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By Christina Tynan-Wood

What you might find in a virtual school

  • AP classes: The trend started as a way to serve advanced classes to a wider geographic net within the state. And in some cases, that — and exam prep — is still the focus.
  • Students with wide interests: This model appeals to young athletes, actors, children of expatriates, families who move frequently, and those who live far from a school, so the other students might turn out to be an especially interesting cohort.
  • Languages: Finding a local teacher to take on not-so-common languages is a challenge for school districts that often offer French and Spanish and little else. But in a virtual school, you might find many more options, including ChineseLatin, and Russian.
  • A degree: These schools are not just sources of online activities or source material for a home schooling parent. They are online schools with curriculum, teachers, and fellow (virtual) classmates.
  • A flexible schedule: A gymnast who practices six hours a day can fit school in after her workout. A night owl teen who slept through his first three classes in traditional school, can work when his mind is ready. A young actor on location can take classes when his filming schedule allows.

What to look out for in a virtual school

If your student hopes to go back to school after dipping into virtual schooling for a year — because of travel, an injury, or school-related trauma — make sure he takes classes from a virtual school from which his regular school will accept transfer credit. Check with your school district to see if there is a public option before paying tuition at a virtual private school.

Also keep in mind that some virtual schools require students to take online classes from a school building. If that’s the case, make sure this will be an improvement over simply attending school. Finally, take a look at your student. Virtual schools aren't for everyone. It requires a certain degree of self-discipline. Students tempted to go to the mall, instead of logging on for school, may fall behind so quickly that it will be a struggle to catch up.

What supporters say

  • Virtual schools offer a quick fix. Virtual schools can instantly expand a school district’s course offerings to include AP classes, languages, and extracurricular courses.
  • They solve student challenges. Students with scheduling, social, or academic challenges do not have to find a parent to homeschool them or a tutor to teach them.
  • They offer custom learning. Students can learn at their own pace, so struggling to keep a gifted student engaged or a struggling one up to speed is solved.

What critics say

  • It’s easy to fall behind. Though there are usually online tools for parents to keep tabs on how students are doing, kids won’t get the same in-class triggers that they are slipping behind.
  • They are part of a movement to privatize public schools. Since many public virtual schools are either operated by (or use curriculum from) private curriculum companies, there has been concern that this model takes money from public schools to enrich private companies.
  • Where's the social life? For kids who want to be engaged in sports, meetings, clubs, and the social world of school, virtual schooling may be isolating. Socializing happens but it’s often virtual or outside of school.
  • There's not enough supervision. For some kids, virtual schooling may amount to too much freedom. For the student more interested in advanced partying than advanced placement classes, virtual schooling may provide the perfect recipe for failure.
  • It's not the optimal model. Critics point out that research suggests that the most effective online schooling takes place in a “blended” learning environment — where kids experience a mix of online classes as wells as face-to-face interactions with teachers and students. These schools are known as hybrid schools.
  • Virtual schools are untested. Though there are thousands of kids who have graduated from virtual high schools, many experts have noted that there’s no solid evidence that virtual schools are providing a comparable education to traditional school. Data is not as comparable between traditional and virtual schools in part because there is higher mobility in the latter. However, a recent study of public charter schools in California found that nearly an eighth of virtual school students tested in 2010-2011 attended a school in the bottom ten percent overall statewide.

A note on K12 schools, the nation's largest online education company: The National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder recently released “Understanding and Improving Full-Time Virtual Schools” that reported fewer than 28 percent of K12-operated virtual schools were meeting Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) in 2010-2011, compared to 52 percent of all schools nationwide.

Across all grade levels, a lower percentage of students in K12-operated schools was meeting or exceeding state standards in reading and math than at public schools. Differences ranged from minimal in ninth and tenth grade reading to fairly significant in eleventh grade math, with a nearly 35 percent gap between K12 operations and the state average. K12 responded that AYP is structured to reward schools with small, stable student populations. A K12 report notes that student attrition is an issue with more than half of parents expecting to keep their students enrolled for two years or less.)

A final word of advice

Do your research. Your school district might offer a free, public virtual school. But you have other choices as well. K12 offers both public and private virtual schools all over the country. The Keystone School (part of a K12 company) is a private online school for middle and high school. The George Washington University Online High School is a virtual college preparatory school for high-achieving high school students.

Whatever the case, be a choosy customer and look for a school that provides what your child needs and ask lots of questions — just as you would a traditional school — before you make a decision. Many programs will allow you to sign up for summer classes, for instance. Just as you would visit a local school, make sure you visit any prospective online school by sampling the curriculum and, if possible, the program. 

Christina Tynan-Wood has written for Better Homes and Gardens, Popular Science, PC World, PC Magazine, InfoWorld, and many others. She currently writes the "Family Tech" column in Family Circle and blogs at GeekGirlfriends.com.

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