Charter schools. Magnet schools. Home schools.
Alternatives to traditional public classrooms are plentiful these days. And in an age when schools integrate technology into instruction, technology itself becomes yet another option for students and parents.
Enter K12, one of many national companies offering parents the option of teaching their children at home with the aid of instructors available online. In Colorado, the company offers its services as Colorado Virtual Academy.
The approach involves a teacher-parent partnership with parents designated as learning coaches, said Heidi Heinecke-Magri, the head of school for the virtual academy.
Parents must be willing to devote time and committed to motivating their children if the program is to work well, said Heinecke-Magri. “It’s difficult. It’s a commitment on the parents’ behalf and the students’ behalf.”
Teachers instruct via Web camera or telephone.
The system offers flexibility, with students spending about an hour per course each day. Students can spend more time on subjects they find difficult or less time on ones they master more quickly.
“Some kids may excel in math and take a half hour. Others might take an hour and a half,” Heinecke-Magri said.
Unlike private school families, parents pay no tuition for online instruction. Each student is covered under the state school funding formula, with the per-student funding paid to Adams County School District 12. That’s because the district agreed to oversee students in the virtual academy, Heinecke-Magri said. In effect, the online students subtract funds from their local school districts and funnel them to the Front Range school district.
The Adams County district also has to accept the outcomes of the online students’ standardized test scores, which can affect long-term funding for a district.
The Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP) scores for online students could be better, Heinecke-Magri said. “I think it’s really important that —more so than CSAP scores — is how students are improving,” she added.
The virtual program could be a victim of its own popularity.
“The reason that kids come to us is for a variety of reasons,” Heinecke-Magri said. The mix includes fast and slow learners, athletes, actors, pregnant teen-agers, victims of bullying and students with special needs. So test scores might not reflect the quality of the virtual school, she said. The school offers counseling and summer school classes to help students with special needs.
The online system is certainly long on efficiency, at least as far as the student-teacher ratio is concerned. Each teacher instructs about 60 students, Heinecke-Magri said.
The K12 Web site notes the system can be used anywhere a student and parent have Internet access. The site states parents of children in kindergarten through sixth grades can expect to spend three to five hours a day assisting their children, but parental time decreases to about two hours a day in grades seven and eight as children become more independent. The time can almost vanish in high schools as students are expected to manage their time more independently.
Colorado Virtual Academy is one of 23 virtual schools in Colorado, Heinecke-Magri said. Time will tell whether or not the system is productive enough to prompt the opening of even more online schools.