According to the New York Times, there are now around 250,000 cyberschool students in kindergarten through high school in the U.S.
Is it right for YOUR family?
Choosing online education for her children was an easy decision for Cathy Abbott.
“We heard about Ohio Connections Academy through acquaintances, and went to an information session, because we were looking for something different,” she says. Her children took an active role in making the decision and are now in their third year. “They always have the option to return to a brick-and-mortar school,” says Abbott, “but they choose not to.”
What keeps the Abbott kids engaged? Their mom points to an education that is tailored to each child’s strengths. “The teachers are wonderful,” she says. “They encourage our kids to challenge themselves.”
Virtual schools may not be for every child or family, but educators and parents are realizing that specialized online help can maximize a child’s potential for academic success.
With online public schools, enrolled children receive a free education and a loaner desktop computer plus subsidy for Internet access. But the virtual school’s real advantage lies in the ability to individualize a child’s academic experience, says Kristin Stewart, Senior Head of Schools at Ohio Virtual Academy (OHVA).
“Students begin learning where they are,” she says. “It’s not 30 kids all sitting in the classroom working on the same project or lesson at the same time. So if the child needs to take a little longer, he can. And if he can grasp something quickly and move on, that’s great too.”
That doesn’t mean students are left to their own devices, says Dana Vulgamore, Supervisor for Educational Advisors at the Buckeye Online School for Success, “We offer our curriculum through two options. The first is the self-paced option where students access their curriculum online, they read through the lessons and submit their work, and that’s accessible at any time and anywhere they can access the Internet. They do have to submit their work in a timely fashion, and that’s where our advisors come in, checking in with the families each week, making sure the students are doing well. The virtual option is real-time, and the students have classes on certain times and certain days of the week. They log in, and they have a live teacher conducting the class online,” she adds.
The idea of designing an education that’s tailored to their child’s ability appeals to parents. “I don’t know if it definitely works for everyone, but we have 12,000 students with 12,000 different personalities and 12,000 different reasons to be here,” says Stewart, pointing out that students who enroll in the Ohio Virtual Academy may be struggling academically, or they may be gifted; they may be bullied and teased at their old schools, or they may just like the idea of being at home.
Students at BOSS range from homeschool students whose parents have maxed out their knowledge on a given topic, to those pursuing an athletic career or students with an illness or disability that prevents them from navigating a physical building. “There are all types of students here,” Vulgamore says. “It’s pretty cool to be able to help out so many different students so many different ways.”
What Parents Need to Know
According to Marie Hanna, Lead Principal at Ohio Connections Academy, what it really comes down to is having a family willing to commit to making an online education work. “It’s not really about a personality type so much as it’s about parents being willing to follow through, and for students to be committed to being successful in the program.”
Parents — especially those of young children — should be just as willing as students to commit to a virtual school, especially since their role is to serve as the facilitator at home, a unique aspect of OHVA, according to Stewart.
“Parents are extremely involved. They are the Learning Coach, so they will be with the child, helping the child, being completely involved in every aspect of their child’s education. But for most parents, their children are their treasures, so they’re willing to put a lot of time into their treasures.”
Not all of a student’s time will be spent at the computer monitor. There are books, workbooks and other materials that come along with OHVA’s K12 curriculum, the largest provider of online curriculum in the U.S. Under that curriculum, younger students aren’t expected to spend more than 25 to 30 percent of their time online. And as kids get older and more independent, less time is required on your part. “The parent of a kindergartner is going to have to provide a lot more oversight than the parent of a high school student,” says Hanna. And Vulgamore adds that while it’s helpful to have a parent at home with the student, virtual schools offer an advisor who checks in regularly and makes sure the student is progressing, so neither student nor parent is left alone.
That kind of help from the school is also a good way to prevent students from slacking off or even cheating. When you’re submitting work over the Internet, rather than handing it over in person to a teacher, it would seem easy to find ways around the system. But between the overseen assessments students are required to take, and the regular contact from advisors, Hanna points out that there are plenty of safeguards in effect at Ohio Connections Academy.
“We have the same accountability measures as other schools in the state of Ohio. Our teachers do a continuous check; they call the child to ask questions about work and verify that they actually know what their assignment covered and that they understand the concepts they’re supposed to learn.”
Plenty of families express concern that their children will miss out on all-important face time with educators if they opt for an online education, but parents’ main concern is socialization. Just like children in brick and mortar schools though, online students participate in programs outside of the home (like select or recreational sports and clubs) and online schools make an effort to organize field trips around the state. Families also take advantage of Facebook and Twitter to create groups and outings.
Is it Right For You?
OHVA’s web site offers a multi-step quiz that will give you an idea of whether or not you could take the leap to online education for your family. The main thing to remember is that your child’s education is only as good as his — and your — commitment to it.
Says Stewart, “People need to know that there’s a lot of work involved with this school, but the rewards are great. Part of the reward is that you’re spending quality time with your student and that your student is learning at the rate they need to learn. That means that eventually they love learning more, because it’s not something they’re being forced to do.”
Sherry Hang is editor for this publication.