Ed-Tech Policy

Despite Concerns, Online Elementary Schools Grow

By Michelle Galley — January 08, 2003 8 min read
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A handful of 1st and 2nd graders have been attending an online school in Alaska for three years. Meanwhile, new cyber elementary schools have opened in Ohio the past year. And Arkansas had so much interest in the “virtual academy” it is opening this month for 450 pupils in grades K-5 that it had to hold an enrollment lottery.

Online schools—a phenomenon typically seen in secondary and higher education—are now filtering down to the nation’s youngest students.

But not everyone is thrilled by the trend.

“One of the fundamental things elementary schools do is bring children together,” said Dennis L. Evans, the director of programs for educational leadership development at the University of California, Irvine. "[With online schools], that entire major part of their education would be ripped away, and nothing would take its place.”

States, school districts, and private companies are moving quickly into uncharted territory by opening virtual academies offering a full range of elementary school classes.

The nuts and bolts of each virtual school vary, just as in brick-and-mortar schools. But one mission that public virtual schools usually have in common is providing another choice for parents: home schooling with a public school connection.

Because young students need close supervision, online elementary schools tend to cater to home schooling parents out of necessity. And many home schoolers are taking advantage of that connection.

Yet online schools are hearing a rising chorus of criticism even within the home schooling world, where the concern differs from that expressed by Mr. Evans.

“The future of independent home schooling is put at risk as government-controlled home schooling grows,” argued Thomas W. Washburne, the director of the Center for Home Education, a division of the Purcellville, Va.- based Home School Legal Defense Association.

If a majority of home schooling parents decide to participate in publicly run programs, “it is tempting for the government to come in and say that we are just going to have all home schooling done through the public system,” Mr. Washburne said. “There is a point at which this could be a real problem.”

‘Demand Is There’

Despite the worries in some quarters, virtual schooling for younger students continues to grow.

For instance, the Florida Virtual School, the nation’s largest publicly financed online school, recently changed its name from the Florida Virtual High School because it now offers middle school courses. And the school’s administrators plan to offer elementary classes in the future.

“The demand is there [for elementary classes],” said Sharon Johnston, the director of curriculum and instruction for the Florida Virtual School.

Currently, about 6,500 students are enrolled in one or more of the school’s online classes. (Technology Counts 2002, May 9, 2002.)

According to the report “Virtual Schools: Trends and Issues,” released a year ago by the San Francisco-based research organization WestEd, virtual schools are the “next wave” in technology-based K-12 education.

WestEd found that 27 percent of all online schools included coursework for elementary pupils—a percentage that experts say is likely to be higher now.

Indeed, since that report was released, online elementary schools have opened in Arkansas and Ohio, and more are planned in California and Idaho.

Districts see important benefits in running virtual elementary schools, said Paul Young, the president of the Alexandria, Va.-based National Association of Elementary School Principals.

To begin with, districts are eligible to receive state and federal grant money for online schools’ start-up expenses. “That is the carrot out there everyone wants to go after,” Mr. Young said.

The 6,000-student Lancaster, Ohio, school district—where Mr. Young serves as a principal—opened its own online school last October with the help of a regional education group.

The school enrolls about 25 students, according to Steve Clippinger, the director of educational, informational, and technology services for the district. Seven of those students are in elementary school.

“This is an alternative for us to attract students in home schooling back into the public system,” Mr. Young said.

Parental Support

SeeUOnline, an online K-12 school run by the 13,000-student Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District, which covers about 25,000 square miles in southern Alaska, is the perfect combination of home schooling and public school, said Sandra Summitt, whose 5th grade son, Kaleb, is enrolled in the program.

At his traditional school, Kaleb figured out that his teachers could not make him do his work, according to Ms. Summitt.

“Now, I can sit on top of him the entire time and make him do his work,” she said. “But the teacher does the grading and comes up with the curriculum and the field trips.”

One of the biggest benefits Ms. Summitt said she sees with SeeUOnline is flexibility. Kaleb took a week off from school in the middle of December, for instance, to go trapping in the woods with his father.

That time outside allows Kaleb, who has been diagnosed as having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, to burn off some energy so that he is more relaxed and focused when it is time to do his schoolwork, his mother said. “It’s like his frustration level has gone straight down,” she said.

SeeUOnline, which has been operating since 1998, currently enrolls seven elementary school pupils.

Dave Holmquist, the online school’s principal, said he hopes that number increases in the future.

But because SeeUOnline is not for everyone, Mr. Holmquist said, he conducts interviews of potential students in which he looks for youngsters who are self-motivated, supported in their home study environment, and have an interest in and access to technology.

“We don’t want this to be a warehouse of kids” who don’t do well in traditional school environments, he said.

In Kaleb’s case, the setup has worked, said Ms. Summitt.

When Kaleb started 4th grade at SeeUOnline, he was reading at a 1st grade level. Now, he’s reading at his grade level, his mother said.

Using the online format, Ms. Summitt and Kaleb’s teacher, Carol Drake, integrated Kaleb’s love of the outdoors into his curriculum and assigned books they knew he would enjoy. “Because he was interested, he took off,” Ms. Summitt said.

Creating individualized curriculum is one of the biggest benefits to teaching elementary school online, Ms. Drake said.

“One of the neatest things I can do is to focus on [students’] interests and get them involved so that they want to do the work,” she said.

To find appropriate materials for her pupils, Ms. Drake scours the Internet. She also designs worksheets parents can download and puts together different projects that are done off-line.

For example, some of the older elementary school pupils made dioramas of a story they had read. And younger students have drawn pictures depicting the beginning, middle, and end of a book.

In addition, the teacher meets with each student for one hour each week at a school building.

“If I didn’t meet with them, then I wouldn’t get to know them and learn all of their skills,” Ms. Drake said.

That weekly face-to-face contact is unusual in most online schools.

In fact, one of the largest suppliers of online curricula for elementary students, McLean, Va.-based K12, depends almost solely on parents to provide personal interaction.

Former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett started K12 three years ago with the backing of Knowledge Universe Learning Group, a Los Angeles-based conglomerate of education-technology companies.

K12, a for-profit company offers online coursework and assessments for kindergarten through grade 12 to 7,000 home schoolers. Its state partners include Colorado, Idaho, Minnesota, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. In addition, K12 partners with half a dozen districts in southern and central California, a cyber school and a charter school in Alaska, and a cyber school in Florida.

Each student enrolled in an online school managed by K12 receives a computer, a printer, and four to six boxes—or 90 pounds—of materials, including workbooks, textbooks, and “manipulatives” to study language arts, mathematics, science, history, art, and music, according to Bror Saxberg, the senior vice president for learning and content for K12.

All of those materials are necessary, he said, because K12 students spend only about 20 percent of their time actually logged on to the computer when they are in kindergarten and 1st grade.

In fact, according to Mr. Saxberg, the technology is more for the parents than for the children.

“We are not about having a child sit down in front of a computer, and 10 years later getting up and going to Harvard,” he said. “The little kids need to be rolling around covered in dirt.”

Critical Concerns

Still, some child- development experts flinch when they hear that elementary-age students are attending online schools. Such setups simply are not appropriate for children at that stage of development, they say.

“We are not at the point yet where the software [used by online elementary schools] is good enough that you can trust it to teach your child as well as you could,” said Jane M. Healy, an educational psychologist. She wrote a 1998 book, Failure to Connect, that explored the problems that overuse of technology pose to children, including such physical ailments as eye strain, back strain, carpal tunnel syndrome, and headaches.

Other experts point to a lack of socialization as a serious problem associated with online schools.

Mr. Evans of the educational leadership program at the University of California, Irvine, said that “if everybody did this, we wouldn’t have a very interesting society. If we were all isolated and didn’t have a chance to engage with people with a different point of view, what would we be creating?”

Advocates of online education counter that the Internet actually has the power to bring together people from very diverse points of view.

Ms. Healy, though, echoed Mr. Evans’ concerns in stark language.

“If you let your child be educated by a machine,” she said, “don’t be surprised if what comes out isn’t totally human.”

Coverage of technology is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.


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