The Virtual School Experience

, Posted: Fri, September 27 2013 at 7:13 PM, Updated: Fri, September 27 2013 at 7:12 PM

The Virtual School Experience

Middle school student Rebeckah Besand needed a mental break from constantly being bullied.

She pitched the idea of home school to her parents. Mom wasn’t entirely sold.

Then, over a fast food meal, Rebeckah’s mom put another option on the table — enrolling in an at-home virtual public charter school.

“As a parent, it’s a fantastic option to not feel isolated and alone, like I have to figure out how to help her on my own,” said mom Elizabeth Besand, who lives in Salem.

Last January, her daughter traded in school days inside a traditional classroom at Parrish Middle School for a virtual learning environment in front of a computer.

While school officials dealt with the bullies, Rebeckah still struggled with emotional issues.

“I wanted to take a break from all the drama at school,” she said.

A growing option

Rebeckah, an Oregon Virtual Academy student, isn’t alone.

Hundreds of students in the Salem-Keizer area have turned to virtual public charter schools as an alternative to brick-and-mortar schools. Although the percentage of students attending these schools statewide is small, student enrollment has steadily climbed since 2005.

A dozen public charter schools in Oregon are virtual, meaning the majority of their students receive instruction and clock in the required numberof school hours by taking online courses. Most core courses for subjects such as English language arts, math and science are not offered in a physical location.

Charter schools are run by a group of parents, teachers or community members, functioning under a contract with a local school district board. Like any other public school, they’re funded by taxpayer dollars. Because the school is publicly funded, parents don’t pay for tuition.

School districts, which receive money from the State School Fund, allocated an estimated $53.2 million to fund the state’s 12 virtual charter schools they sponsor, according to the Department of Education. The department estimates are based off calculations from a formula that factors in additional costs for certain students such as those in special education or those who are pregnant.

In the last school year, 6,860 students statewide were enrolled in virtual public charter schools, according to state enrollment data from Oct. 1, 2012.

Most of those students attend Oregon Connections Academy, followed by Oregon Virtual Academy. About 440 students in the Salem-Keizer area are enrolled this year in those schools.

Oregon Connections Academy and Oregon Virtual Academy contract with for-profit education companies to provide online schooling and curriculum materials.

Officials who run these virtual online public charter schools say they get a wide range of students including the previously home schooled, advanced learners, special education students, kids who want relief from bullying and those who are disenchanted by growing class sizes in public schools.

“As people have become more tuned into and savvy about technology in education and alternatives like this, they’re turning to it,” said Tom Luba, executive director at Oregon Connections Academy.

Enrollment at the school, which is the largest in the state, jumped from about 600 students in 2005 to about 3,400 this school year.

Not always a right fit

As the popularity of online education continues to grow, some education experts are advising state policymakers to think twice before expanding this alternative form of education.

A study published in May by the National Education Policy Center, found that virtual schools significantly lagged behind traditional brick-and-mortar schools when it came to on-time graduation rates, standardized tests and state performance ratings.

“No reliable research has yet demonstrated under what conditions, in what format, and in what specific ways virtual schools may present an advantage over existing brick-and-mortar schools,” the study said.

The research center, which receives funding from the nation’s largest labor union representing public school employees, is a nonprofit based in the University of Colorado’s School of Education.

Officials who run the state’s virtual charter schools say they’re held to the same and sometimes greater accountability as any other public school.

Teachers are certified, the curriculum is aligned to state standards and students take the same state tests. Learning coaches, such as the parents, help monitor their child’s progress, making sure their children are staying on track.

In Oregon, the percentage of students who were proficient in math in most of the virtual public charter schools is significantly below the state’s numbers during the last school year. These online students fared better in meeting the state’s reading, science and writing benchmarks, but most still fell short of the state average.

Online learning is merely another option for parents, Luba said. But like any other form of education, it’s not always the right fit for every student.

“Some kids need to see the whites of a teacher’s eyes every day to stay motivated to get their work done,” he said.

Oregon Virtual Academy’s dean of students, Dr. Catherine Wilson, said online education is a good option for students who need special attention academically because they’re allowed to go through the courses on their own schedule.

Wilson has taught in a traditional brick-and-mortar school and a virtual school.

“They probably are more open with letting you know they’re not getting it or need more time because they do have that blanket of protection and other students are not looking at them,” she said.

A chance to refocus

One recent Thursday morning, Rebeckah Besand is instant messaging with her classmates as the clock winds down before physical science class starts.

Rebeckah, 13, already has a best friend in the class although they’ve never met in person.

Her teacher Darwin Crabtree appears on the computer screen, starting off the lesson about calculating density by having students listen to a song.

“Density, you want to find density. You have to get the mass. Record the grams. Figure out the volume, too,” another teacher sings in a video.

Rebeckah attends live online classes two times per week.

After explaining the concept to the class, Crabtree asks students to calculate density in a series of problems. Students answer questions via chat where they can type and click buttons to raise their hand or insert an emoticon.

Rebeckah’s mom checks in every once in a while. She points out to her daughter that she needs to write down the unit of measurement with her answer.

When the lesson ends, students ask the teacher questions using a microphone. One student is curious whether it’s dangerous to put a battery in water, while another admits he’s confused about the formula used to calculate density.

When Rebeckah started virtual school last year, it was a challenge academically to transition from a traditional classroom midway through the school year.

Now she’s starting to find her footing in a virtual classroom, though she hasn’t ruled out returning to a brick-and-mortar school for high school.

“I don’t want to miss out on yearbook photos, track or prom,” she said.

Mom, remembering the times her daughter cried in the car on the way to school, is concentrating more on the present.

“Middle school is hard for anyone and we certainly can’t keep her in a bubble but we wanted to refocus,” she said.

Oregon virtual public charter schools

Charter SchoolDistrict2013-14 Estimated District Funding
Baker Web AcademyBaker $ 2,469,375
Clackamas Web AcademyNorth Clackamas $ 3,138,500
Estacada Web AcademyEstacada$ 2,616,028
Gresham-Barlow Web Academy Public Charter SchoolGresham-Barlow $ 2,235,643
Oregon Virtual AcademyNorth Bend $ 12,260,707
Insight School of Oregon - Charter OptionCrook County $ 2,527,205
Silvies River Charter SchoolHarney County $ 349,813
Paisley SchoolPaisley $ 2,022,374
Oregon Connections AcademyScio$ 25,034,444
Oregon Virtual Education - EastSherman County $ 50,831
Oregon Virtual Education - WestGaston$ 168,453
Sheridan AllPrep AcademySheridan$ 334,652
Source: Oregon Department of Education

Enrolling

Students are eligible to enroll in a public charter school if space is available.
Approval from the school district where the student resides is not required to enroll in a virtual public school, but the legal guardian or parent of the student must provide a notice to the district of their intent to enroll the student in the school and the enrollment of the student in the virtual public school.
There is an exception: School district approval is required before enrolling in a virtual public charter school if more than three percent of the students who reside in a school district are enrolled in virtual public charter schools that are not sponsored by the school district, according to state law.
Documents also are required to verify requirements for age and residence.
For a list of some online schools, see www.ode.state.or.us/search/ results/?id=334

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