Special Report

School Districts Team Up on Virtual Ed. Initiatives

By Katie Ash — March 12, 2012 8 min read
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As school districts begin to tackle the overwhelming task of starting a virtual school, many of them are looking to their neighbors for support.

Banding together in multidistrict virtual learning collaborations helps member districts pool resources, increase purchasing power, and share best practices as they launch and support online learning for their students.

“Why re-create the wheel?” asks John Jacobs, the director of online learning for the Wisconsin eSchool Network, based in Webster village. The network, which began in 2002 as a collaboration between two districts—the Appleton and Kiel school districts—in the state, now serves 12 districts and has become its own nonprofit organization.

“Our mission is to ensure equitable access for all students and school districts and maximize the autonomy for our districts,” says Jacobs.

While all of the network’s members must use the same learning-management system, student-information system, and curriculum, what courses are offered, how many students can enroll, and what they must do to be admitted to the online program are left up to the districts themselves.

To become a part of the network, school districts must decide between becoming an “invested member,” which involves paying a one-time fee to the network over five years and having a seat on the board, or an “affiliate member.” An affiliate member does not pay a fee or have a representative on the board, but pays higher per-course enrollment fees to the network than invested members do.

In addition to the expertise that the network is able to provide after a decade’s worth of experience in virtual learning, the courses themselves are bought at a much lower rate because of the purchasing power the network creates, Jacobs says.

“You can [go out and do this on your own] but it’s going to be more expensive, and you’re going to have to learn lessons we’ve already learned,” he points out.

One of the challenges of working in a multidistrict model, however, is aligning the districts’ different priorities.

“Allocating resources is a place where there is a discussion and not all needs can be met,” says Jacobs. But making sure that everyone is keeping in mind a common goal helps bridge differences between districts and allows the network to continue growing, he says. For instance, one district may want more elementary-level curriculum, while another may want more middle school curriculum, he says.

“However, these issues are not show stoppers and can be and have always been resolved through collaborative efforts and in return for this collaboration, equitable high-quality digital learning opportunities are provided for both districts and students throughout our state of Wisconsin,” says Jacobs.

In southwestern Colorado, the San Juan Board of Cooperative Educational Services, or BOCES, which serves nine districts, launched the Southwest Colorado eSchool last August. The school enrolls 60 full-time students and nine part-time students.

Virtual Schools

These maps detail state virtual schools and multidistrict virtual schools and include enrollment figures.


SOURCE: “Keeping Pace With K-12 Online Learning”

The decision to open the school came from superintendents in the BOCES who wanted a more local virtual school option for their students, says Justin Schmitt, the principal of the school. Although the school currently uses curriculum from the Golden, Colo.-based Jeffco’s 21st Century Virtual Academy, the Southwest Colorado eSchool hopes to develop its own curriculum and acquire its own teaching staff in the future, says Schmitt, in order to provide a homegrown, local virtual learning option for students.

The school provides two offices where students can drop in for extra help or to work on their courses. Funding for the school comes from the per-pupil enrollment allocation of the full-time students, as well as the tuition fees from the member districts for part-time students.

“Our ability to hire teachers and to purchase curriculum is directly correlated with the number of students we have, so as we grow, we’ll be able to start hiring more local staff,” Schmitt says.

Likewise, as the school expands, the cost of part-time enrollments will decrease and districts will not have to pay as much per course, he says.

“We’d ultimately like to be able to offer [the courses] free of charge [to the districts],” says Schmitt.

Similar to the e-school network in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania’s Capital Area Online Learning Association, or CAOLA, strives to provide member districts with autonomy, says Holly Brzycki, the supervisor of online learning for CAOLA.

CAOLA serves districts in Pennsylvania’s Capital Area Intermediate Unit, which includes Cumberland, Dauphin, Perry, and northern York counties in the south-central part of the state. The association has also partnered with other intermediate units in the state, bringing its total membership to 20 entities, including school districts, intermediate units, and charter schools.

“If you have a school district that’s just a small district that can’t afford to hire somebody [specifically to work on launching a virtual school], it’s going to be a lot of work for existing personnel to start something up,” Brzycki says. "[The association] makes it much more manageable.”

CAOLA began in 2009 with the help of grant money, but has sustained itself through member fees—$24,000 or $12,000 annually, depending on the size of the district and how it is using the courses, says Brzycki.

“The school districts have a huge part in the program, and any major decisions ... they’re deeply involved in,” she says.

All the member districts participate in monthly networking meetings where they can share ideas and best practices, and where Brzycki can bring up any potential changes to the program. Brzycki also meets quarterly with the superintendents of each district for a more detailed analysis of the progress of CAOLA.

“I don’t make any major changes [such as contracting with a new vendor, offering a new product, or changing the price structure] to the program without letting districts weigh-in about the idea,” she says.

CAOLA provides online courses for students in K-12, using three virtual education providers: Edison Learning for grades 9-12, Aventa Learning for grades 6-8, and K12 Inc. for elementary school courses.

The biggest challenge hasn’t been working with districts, says Brzycki, but rather working with the vendors, which are used to selling directly to families or to a specific school or district.

“It’s tricky to explain our needs and how we need to be set up,” she says.

In Vermont, educators started the Vermont Virtual Learning Cooperative funded initially with money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act awarded in 2009. The grant money was awarded to the River Valley Technical Center School District, which oversees the actions of the VTVLC.

“We wanted to look at preventing the duplication of effort,” says Jeffrey Renard, the program coordinator of the VTVLC, which serves about 40 high schools in the state.

In the Vermont cooperative’s model, schools pay a membership fee, which varies depending on how many teachers they provide to teach courses. One teacher is equivalent to 25 student seats in the course offerings of the cooperative for a given school year.

Vermont schools that are not members can also enroll students in VTVLC courses for $300 to $400 per course per student, depending on the course.

The VTVCL prepares teachers to teach online through a six-month professional-development regimen. The cooperative is also working on helping teachers develop their own course material, says Renard.

The school opened in 2010; its enrollment for the 2011-12 school year is 550 students from 40 public and independent high schools as well as homeschoolers.

“Failure is not an option when you’re talking about kids, so it’s really critical to have that very specific common vision that you can share and that everybody can pinpoint like a laser,” Renard says. That mission is to provide high-quality learning opportunities for Vermont students through a wide variety of online learning resources.

Woody Wilson is the director of distance education for the Alaska Learning Network, or AKLN. Started two years ago, the network now serves all 54 school districts in the state.

The vast and sparsely populated state has about 140 high schools with fewer than 20 students each, says Wilson. “These small schools are having a great deal of difficulty providing” all the courses that each student needs, he says.

However, schools in the remote areas, which are often the most in need of online learning, often do not have high-speed Internet access, which makes it hard to provide the interactive, multimedia-rich courses that AKLN would like to use.

AKLN currently receives its curriculum through Herndon, Va.-based K12 Inc., although the network is working to train teachers to teach online as well as develop teachers’ own online classes in the future, says Wilson. The school is in its second semester, with about 120 students.

It’s not just districts that are reaping the benefits of collaboration. State virtual schools, too, are working together to share best practices and improve online education for students.

The State Virtual School Leadership Alliance includes seven state virtual schools: the Georgia Virtual School, the Idaho Digital Learning Academy, the Illinois Virtual School, the Michigan Virtual University, the Montana Digital Academy, the North Carolina Virtual Public School, and the Wisconsin Virtual School. The Virtual High School Global Consortium, which serves states and districts across the country, is also part of the alliance. “In most situations, we’re the only ones in the state doing a lot of dedicated work in the area of online learning, so to some extent it’s been a little lonely,” says Jamey Fitzpatrick, the president and chief executive officer of the Lansing-based Michigan Virtual University, which enrolled about 20,000 K-12 credits this year. “But we’ve all been going through similar challenges and opportunities, and it really becomes an invaluable asset to call on one another.”

The eight schools have come together to create a nonprofit organization, in part to seek partnerships with for-profit businesses as well grant opportunities, he says.

“We’re trying to go out and look at these partnerships that we could foster to help us develop some world-class online content,” Fitzpatrick says. “We all have an interest in helping to invent the future, and the best way to invent the future is to get your hands dirty and try things.”

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