Sunday, March 29, 2009

Virtual Schools - the good, the bad, and the ...

Virtual schools have exploded across the country with enrollment numbers doubling and tripling each year since the mid-1990's. Initially, virtual schools were a great tool for parents with home bound students with medical conditions to stay home while receiving an accredited education. They were also great for parents who wanted to be home school parents but didn't know how to provide all the academic tools and guidance as an educator. What began as a tool to help parents who either could not or did not want their children in a local public school, has become a "choice" in most states for any parent to take advantage of.

Most states that initially began with their own curriculum and programs have now turned over the keys to their virtual schools to larger companies like Connections Academy and K12. There are hundreds of virtual academies that work as a private school/institution, but these two companies work directly with the states and county school districts to provide a free public school education. However, there are a limited number of seats available and parents must apply early to guarantee a position for a year-long program.

Students typically receive a computer, a printer, and all coursework material when they are registered. Parents receive the name and contact information for their student's guidance counselor and a syllabus that the student will follow. Parents of elementary students will have a hands-on day-to-day responsibility. They will act as the teacher and walk the student through each of their assignments and tests then follow up with the guidance counselor. Parents of high school students can continue this roll, but most students at this stage are capable of following directions and maintaining their own course syllabus. Most high school students are self teaching and communicating directly with the guidance counselor.

Other expanded utilizations of virtual schools are for high school students who need to take make-up classes to meet graduation requirements or for students who want to take additional AP and college credit courses. The virtual schools allow these students to take these additional courses outside of their daily public school routines at no additional costs (once approved). For the students and parents that truly take full advantage of the virtual school's programs and its academic purposes, this is a winning scenario. It's a true benefit for them.

However, there are some pitfalls for parents to watch out for.

Many parents of elementary aged students simply don't want to send their kids off to school and feel it would be "easier" to do it themselves at home. However, without the ability to control a teaching environment in the home a student can quickly fall behind. If parents do not engage their children in other extra curricular activities, elementary aged students will not learn how to socialize with other children. It is also up to the parent to include a portion of their day for physical activity and art/music to maintain a balance of education. It is unfortunate that some parents take on more than they can handle to the detriment of the student.

High school students are a different scenario with many of the same concerns; most of these students are self-teaching while their parents are on the job. Parents put a lot of trust and faith in their children relying on them to complete the necessary requirements all on their own. It is even easier for a high school student taking algebra, biology, and literature as their core subjects to fall behind than it is for the elementary student learning how to multiple and divide. There is also always concern for the extra time on their hands and what they will choose to do with it. Making sure a teenager keeps their mind on their academics while on the computer instead of cyber chatting, twittering, myspace, gaming, or the hundreds of other internet lures awaiting them will tend to be a challenge.

There is always the good and bad in every situation. But one of my questions in our current economy, is "Is a virtual school paid for by public funding more or less finacially and fiscally responsible than the brick-and-mortar public schools?"

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