Virtual charters: public schooling, at home

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

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.

"It's very hard to tailor and pace a curriculum for a particular student, and this is the perfect opportunity," says Jennifer Eastman, a PAVCS teacher who says she loved the public school where she taught kindergarten but was also interested in technology. "Some children want to move faster and go really quickly; others have special needs, and this gives them the opportunity to slow down and concentrate."

The virtual school tries to combine the strengths of home-schooling, such as individual attention, with the advantages of a structured and supervised curriculum. The formula is attracting parents who otherwise might not home-school their children.

"There's such a big gap between home-schooling and public school," says Anne Hussman, who enrolled her 6-year-old daughter, Rhaeanne, in first grade at PAVCS. "I kept asking my husband, 'Where's the middle ground? Where's someone telling me what to do?' This way, I'm home-schooling and am still responsible for her education, but I'm also responsible to someone else."

Avoiding isolation

The most common criticism of home-schooling, whether it's done independently or through a cyberschool, is that students miss out on interaction with other children their age. "The image of kids in a dark room sitting in front of a computer all day is one of the hardest myths to dispel," says Jason Bertsch, a spokesman for K12.

To help make up for the lack of usual classroom contact, teachers organize outings at least once a month for the students in their regional area (each area has up to 50 students). Destinations have included the Pittsburgh Zoo, an apple orchard, various community centers, Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pa., and the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia.

To encourage networking among parents, the school is working on adding a chat room and electronic bulletin boards.

Many students are also involved in extracurricular activities in their communities.

"Some children out there aren't getting enough interaction, but it's a rarity because most of these parents want to give their children so much," Ms. Fiel says. "Although it's not a classroom environment, these children have a great deal of interaction through church, sports, Boy Scouts...."

Rhaeanne Hussman, for example, takes ballet and tap lessons and belongs to Awana, a church group for children. She also has play dates with a girl living a block away who is also enrolled in the virtual first grade.

But her mother still felt a sad twinge when the family went to a parade and watched the local school's band marching past. "I looked at my husband and said, 'That's something I don't know how we'll do,' " Ms. Hussman says. According to PAVCS, schools are supposed to allow home-schooled children access to extracurricular programs in their district even though they are not enrolled in the school.

The cyberschool has had dropouts since September, mainly because some parents found that even with the help of a certified teacher, becoming full-time teachers themselves was overwhelming. "It does need to be emphasized to parents what a commitment this is. It's not an easy thing," Ms. Eastman says. "It's different from home-schooling because there is a curriculum with requirements, and parents have to do an assessment in every subject every day."

Hard work, flexibility

Many parents - almost always the mother - are taking care of babies or toddlers full time while they also try to teach one or more children the required five hours per day, raising questions about the appropriateness or feasibility of such double duty. But those who can handle it find the flexibility appealing. "I keep it structured like a classroom, but when she takes a break, I run and fold a load of laundry," Kimmerling says.

Some of the parents of Fiel's students taught more intensively in the first three months of the school year in order to take most of December off. One woman travels for one week every month and takes her child with her, doing the lessons out of hotel rooms. A few parents are team teaching, with the mother handling some subjects and the father doing others, or teaching in foreign languages. In one case, the mother, father, and nanny are teaching the children in English, German, and Russian.

One thing that PAVCS educators know they will do differently next year is to offer more intensive technical training to parents. More than 100 families who have students enrolled in the virtual school had never had a computer at home before, and some parents are finding it difficult to keep up with the lessons online. Principal Maslayak considers introducing technology to families an added benefit of cyberschooling. And since the only requirement for parents to teach their children through PAVCS is that they be able to read, some parents are learning more than just technology.

As Maslayak points out, "In many cases, you'll find parents learning alongside the children."

Opposition mounts as school dollars slide into cyberspace

Faster than you can say "click here," the challenges to virtual charter schools are being raised.

Concerned about money being siphoned off from regular public schools, the Pennsylvania School Boards Association claims that online schools do not have a right to exist as charters under the current law.

When a student goes to a charter school, the home school district must hand over that student's allotment of public funds to the charter school. At the Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School (PAVCS), tuition and other expenses add up to an estimated $7,000 per student.

Local schools never appreciate losing funding. But until recently their loss of students - and money - had been limited by the number of spaces in local charter schools. With cyber-charter schools, however, geography is not an issue. Students from across the state have enrolled in PAVCS, and some teachers oversee students from more than 100 miles away.

In April, the Pennsylvania School Boards Association filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of cyber-charter schools. Arguments are expected to be heard this spring.

"The charter-school law envisions a place where children go to school. For example, charter schools must provide a physical description of the school - but cyberschools exist in cyberspace," says Thomas Gentzel, executive director of the association. In addition, he says, "The state's attendance requirement requires parents to 'send' their child to a day school, with the exception of home-schooling. So that raises the question: Are the cyberstudents in compliance with the compulsory attendance law?"

The association helped draft two bills in the Pennsylvania Legislature that would treat cyber charter schools separately from usual charter schools. Until these schools' status is clarified, Mr. Gentzel says, they don't have a right to receive public funding.

PAVCS points to a section in the current charter-school law addressing the attendance requirement; it states that computer and satellite technology can be used to deliver instruction to students.

"Some who wrote the law say they had virtual [schooling] in mind, some say they didn't," says Michael Maslayak, principal of the Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School.

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