Cover Story
@SKL: Amy watches as Tristan participates in a cyberschool class.
@SKL: Amy watches as Tristan participates in a cyberschool class.

Public school @ home

Back to School | Online charter schools are growing, with growing pains

Issue: "Back to School," Sept. 6, 2014

Brother and sister Tristan and Grace Benson live in Hobart, Ind., and are both enrolled in public school. Grace wakes by 7 a.m., gets dressed, and rides with her mom to be dropped off at her elementary school, where she’s attending third grade this year. Tristan, in 11th grade, wakes up an hour or so later, eats breakfast, and takes his laptop to his family’s basement rec room, where he dons a headset and logs in to a virtual classroom. He sometimes gets to stay in pajamas.

Tristan, 16, is one of more than approximately 300,000 K-12 public-school students—less than 1 percent of the U.S. total—enrolled at a full-time cyberschool. They study subjects like math, biology, Spanish, and U.S. history, watch teachers on webcams, and interact with fellow students, but all from home, using a computer. Since the first online charter school opened in 1994, the number of schools and students has grown steadily, with full-time cyberschool enrollees increasing around 75 percent in the past five years.

But the speedy growth of online education is meeting some resistance: Full-time public cyberschools, especially, face criticism for low scores and high turnover rates. Internet-based learning is here to stay, but its ultimate role in public education may depend on whether it can overcome performance hurdles.

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Tristan’s parents pulled him out of a brick-and-mortar public high school after his first freshman semester, when his grades were struggling. “Going from middle school to high school was just hard for him,” largely due to distractions from other students, said Amy Benson, his mother. “He always asked to be homeschooled, but because I worked I thought I’d never have the time.”

The Bensons found a solution in Indiana Connections Academy, an accredited statewide cyberschool based in Indianapolis. It’s technically a public school, so tuition is free to families—along with books and computer headsets. State education funds reimburse Connections Academy for each student. On his laptop, Tristan joins a live virtual class once or twice a day, communicating with teachers and other online students through his headset or a chat window. He watches science experiments by video or does them at home (he once made a cardboard roller coaster for a physics lesson). Amy, currently laid off from a home health job, supervises Tristan when he takes tests, marks lessons as completed, and follows academic progress reports.

Students like Tristan take all their classes online, while other schools have begun offering “blended learning,” where students get instruction partially online and partially in traditional classrooms. Some states allow “course choice,” where public-school students take online classes from outside providers. Florida, Alabama, and a few other states now require students to take at least one online class in order to graduate.

During the last school year, 30 states and the District of Columbia permitted fully online, multidistrict public schools. In many cases, for-profit companies, often legally recognized as charter schools, provide the software and curriculum, contracting their services to school districts. Connections Academy, which runs Tristan’s Indiana cyberschool, is the second-largest such provider after K12 Inc., an online education company former education secretary William Bennett co-founded in 1999.

K12 Inc. has enjoyed rapid growth: Its revenue expanded from $226 million to $848 million between 2008 and 2013. Last year it operated 82 schools and enrolled around 87,800 students (up from 11,000 in 2005), according to a report from the National Education Policy Center in Boulder, Colo.

“I think we’ve only begun to see the potential of course choice and of online learning,” said Michael Brickman, the national policy director at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which advocates for school choice. “You’ve seen technology transform almost every other industry except education.” Brickman wrote a report for Fordham suggesting states allow students at traditional brick-and-mortar schools to take online classes from a variety of outside providers, such as the National Geographic Society and Microsoft, where students could learn how to make maps and apps.

Some online public schools are in danger of suspension, though. At Tennessee Virtual Academy, a statewide cyberschool overseen by school district officials in Union County, Tenn., 626 students barely kept their virtual classroom seats this August after the state’s education commissioner, Kevin Huffman, recommended the school bar the enrollment of any new students. The academy, operated by K12 and enrolling nearly 1,900 students through eighth grade this fall, launched three years ago. But the school’s students have made poor academic marks, achieving a Level 1, the worst rank in the state’s 1-5 rating scale to measure student progress. The Union County school board ultimately voted to let the 626 new enrollees stay, but Huffman said the cyberschool must shut down at the end of the school year unless the students improve their scores dramatically, to a Level 3.

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