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Virtual charters: public schooling, at home

By Shira J. BossSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / January 8, 2002

One daughter loves going to third grade at public school every day; the other one started rebelling in kindergarten.

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Carolyn Kimmerling wanted to try home-schooling her reluctant learner, Rebekah, who is now 7. But she says she didn't feel confident enough to choose her own curriculum, and it was too expensive to buy one.

Then she heard a radio interview with former Secretary of Education William Bennett, who has started a company that sets up virtual schools. Parents lead their children through lessons that are monitored by teachers through the computer and telephone conferences. That gave Ms. Kimmerling the guidance she needed to help educate her daughter. Plus, the bill for tuition and all of the materials - including the computer and the online connection - is picked up by the government. That's because the virtual school is organized as a charter, which uses public school dollars to fund private-style education.

Mr. Bennett's company, K12, is also affiliated with virtual charter schools in Alaska, California, and Colorado.

"We're all pioneers," Kimmerling says. "This really is a new way to teach."

More than 700 students across Pennsylvania have enrolled in the Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School (PAVCS), the second-largest of several cyberschools now operating in the state. It offers kindergarten through second grade, and plans to expand gradually through high school.

But some local school districts are rebelling against programs like PAVCS. The cyberschools intensify the controversy already surrounding charter schools - which divert money from traditional public schools. The Pennsylvania School Boards Association has initiated a lawsuit alleging that online charter schools are not legal under the current charter school law (see story, below).

Their argument, however, has more to do with issues of funding and school board supervision over local students than it does with concerns about the curriculum - which follows state guidelines - or the quality of education. An independent audit of cyber-charter schools by KPMG Consulting, which was commissioned by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, praised PAVCS for offering a well-researched program and an appropriate assessment plan.

Online is not the 'essence'

When a student enrolls in PAVCS, the family is sent boxes of materials: textbooks, a phonics kit, art supplies, and a computer and software. A teacher is assigned to work with the parents, who guide students through the lesson plan and record their progress online.

Contrary to what many may imagine, most instruction is not online. "We actually downplay the virtual nature of it. That's not our essence," says Michael Maslayak, the school's principal, who has 30 years of experience as a public school teacher and administrator.

While parents or other adults are teaching the students, teachers are available to help by telephone or e-mail, and hold teleconferences every other week. The students sometimes send samples of their work by e-mail or through regular mail, and teachers check their knowledge firsthand on the telephone.

"We ask the students specific questions to make sure they've covered certain topics," says Anita Fiel, a PAVCS teacher who previously taught for 18 years in a traditional public school. Teachers also have access to the family's lesson plan and students' scores, and can assign remedial or enrichment work.