The Free Press, Mankato, MN

August 12, 2006

Virtual schools catch on

Several state districts offer online programs

By Nick Hanson

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.

“Home schooling is very hard, because parents have to choose all of the curriculum,” said Mellisa Nelson, Connections Academy principal. “We have many former home schoolers.”

About 220 students enrolled in Connections last year, and Nelson said she expects up to 400 students this fall.

The school’s handful of teachers specialize in various subjects, such as math, social studies, language and reading. Teachers generally work an 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. shift, similar to regular public school hours.

During that time, teachers communicate with students and their parents over the phone, through computer messaging or via Web camera conferences.

Virtual school reading and literature teacher Stephanie Hoffman said she prefers the online atmosphere to teaching in public schools, which she did for about her about 10 years.

“This is my favorite teaching job I’ve ever had,” Hoffman said. “We aren’t running away from classroom teaching, we just saw this as a new innovative way to deliver instruction.”

Among the top of her favorite changes is elimination of distractions and behavior management in the classroom.

She also enjoys the ability to level student curriculum, which allows students to advance at their own pace.

“We can all collaborate on what would be great for them,” Hoffman said. “We do it however it works best for the student.”

That’s not to say virtual schooling is for everybody, Nelson said. As with traditional home schooling, it requires a lot of parent involvement and a certain type of student.

“There are always bumps. The program doesn’t work for everybody,” Nelson said. “We want to (make sure we’re) a good fit for the family.”

But for a family like the Larsons, virtual school is a perfect fit.

“It’s fun to be able to read your social studies book on the couch or read a book in bed,” Elisabeth said.