The Free Press, Mankato, MN

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August 12, 2006

Virtual schools catch on

Several state districts offer online programs

MANKATO — The Larsons started home schooling their daughter Elisabeth two years ago.

It’s a move they don’t regret.

“We decided we wanted a little bit more say in her education,” said Greg Larson, her father. “We felt in a way that we were somehow getting left out of her education.”

Problem was, she was learning her parents’ lesson plans too fast. By the end of her first year, they wondered if they’d be able to feed her voracious appetite for knowledge.

“She was like a sponge,” said Maria Larson, her mother. “I was running out of things to teach her. I thought, ‘I’ve got to have some help.’”

The solution came in the mail box after the family got an informational brochure about a virtual public school.

The Larsons attended an informational session, signed Elisabeth up and couldn’t be more happy with the results.

“There is accountability for each class,” Maria said. “Now I’m just the learning coach to make sure she follows through.”

Online learning and virtual public schools are an alternative to attending public school. More than a dozen Minnesota school districts offer substantial online learning programs, according to the Minnesota Department of Education.

The department approves about 20 different providers. Students can take anywhere from one course up to a full load like Elisabeth.

Some schools, like Minnesota Connections Academy, align curriculum with Minnesota state standards and students are subject to state and federal testing required by No Child Left Behind.

Connections has its own crop of virtual school teachers who grade assignment, papers and give report cards.

Parents, however, continue to play a paramount role as mentors to make sure their children stay on task and follow assignments. They also do plenty of communicating with teachers.

At Connections and other virtual schools, equipment such as textbooks and computers are loaned to students for free provided they are returned and used exclusively for schooling.

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