Virtual schools

Virtual schools


by Doug Petcash

Bio | Email | Follow: @DougPetcashKTVB


Posted on January 30, 2012 at 2:15 PM

Updated Thursday, Dec 5 at 2:56 PM

Idaho virtual schools
Virtual schools in Idaho:
Total enrollment:
Schedule flexibility, easy to connect with teachers, students can dual enroll
Requires self-discipline, teacher not in the same room, no direct supervision

BOISE -- You have probably heard a lot over the last year about the new Students Come First Education Reform Laws.  One of the big components of them, is that starting with the class of 2016, all public school students in Idaho will have to take two online credits to graduate.

Virtual schools are still relatively new to Idaho.  We all know about traditional schools, which have the teacher and students in the same room.  Technology is changing that relationship.

A lot of kids are already taking many more than two classes online.  Some are even taking all of their classes online through virtual schools, also known as 'online schools' or 'cyber schools'.

Right now, there are seven virtual schools in Idaho, with a total enrollment of just over 5,200.

They are all public charter schools that get government funding, in other words, tax money.   Just like all public schools, they have to meet all state standards for students and teachers.

Sophomore Sara Loertscher is taking classes online and she has been for the past year.  Learning that way works for her.

"I like the fact that I can get up early in the morning to do it, or do it late at night just depending on the day," said Sarah.

Her father Wayne believes it is a good alternative for Sarah and her sister.

"I think what I like the very most is that they can progress at their rate and they seem happier," said Wayne Loertscher.

The girls take classes through Richard McKenna Charter High School based in Mountain Home.  The school has an on-site program and a separate online program, which is what the Loertscher family uses.

Larry Slade founded the school in 2002 and is now its director.

"I think for some students it's great.  They like learning in that fashion and others don't," said Larry Slade.

Richard McKenna Charter High School is one of seven virtual schools in Idaho.  They are all public charter schools.  That means they receive public funding and have independent local school boards.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna says they also have to meet state standards when it comes to student achievement, teacher qualifications, and curriculum.    

"When we talk about virtual schools and we talk about those classes that are thought of as distance learning or online education, every one of them are taught by an Idaho certified teacher," said Tom Luna.  "The curriculum has to be reviewed and be aligned to academic standards.  That's how we've always done it in the past, and that's how we'll continue to do it in the future."
Kristi McBride has been teaching English to Richard McKenna online students for the last eight years.    

"So everyday they get online and they have a lesson and an assignment and then I am here to help them, answer any questions they might have, grade their assignment, walk them through concepts," explained McBride. 

Before this, she taught four years in a traditional school.

"I think the biggest reward of being an online teacher is the opportunity you have to help the kids reach their full potential in a learning environment that is conducive to their individual learning needs," said McBride.

Richard McKenna Charter is relatively small, with about 275 virtual students.  It developed its own curriculum and offers 34 courses for 9th through 12th graders.

It provides everything they need to graduate, with flexibility and access.   

"A lot of kids that are working, for example, and it doesn't meet their schedule, then the online provides a flexibility to study at night or study at different times during the day or on different days," said Slade.

Inspire Connections Academy based in Boise is larger, with about 650 virtual students.  It offers kindergarten through 12the grade curriculum, provided by a curriculum company.

Andrew Lunt teaches 7th grade social studies to about a dozen students who are linked in live to the lesson. 

"They have a log in or a link to the live lesson room and each teacher has their own live lesson room, and so they go to that live lesson room and they have it on their home page for each teacher so they know at a certain time that a teacher is having their live lesson," said Lunt.

Gerald Chouinard is the Inspire Connections Academy Principal.
"You're individualized learning, one-on-one learning, with a highly qualified teacher, state certified teacher," said Chouinard.
A question that naturally arises, because the students and teachers aren't in the same room, is how much interaction time do they have?  When a student needs help, is a teacher available? 

"They can call me.  They know that they can call me any time and I can answer their questions and if they want to talk to me face-to-face with the web cam they do that during my office hours or they can set up an appointment to do so, and I can give them feedback through email, said McBride.

"There's a lot of interaction. It's not an isolated experience at all," Slade agreed.

"Here they can just call you any time they need something, call you multiple times a day.  They can send you an e-mail and you can get back to them right away," Lunt said.

Sarah Loertscher agrees that it is easy to get help when she is stumped on an assignment. 

"Pretty easy.  They respond to emails within the day and they have office hours several times a week, so it's easy to contact them for me," said Sarah. who is a sophomore.

Her father said they are also available when she needs help, "She also talks to us, her parents, and a lot of time we're able to help her get through a problem.

But the fact remains, the teacher will not be in the same room with the student. 

"They need to understand that it requires a lot of self-discipline to do online learning.  Some people feel like there's going to be someone directly supervising you, and there's not,"  said Slade. 

"It takes commitment, not only on the part of the student but on the part of the parent also," said Chouinard.  "Because it is a partnership between the parent, the teacher and the student."

Each of the virtual schools KTVB spoke with say  they have a group of students who excel, who came to them because they wanted to move at a faster pace than traditional schools move.  But a high percentage are also at-risk students.

"Academic issues, behavioral issues. Some of the kids have children, they're pregnant, some are sick, some of them have struggled in schools and aren't doing well.  Some have dropped out, they've quit, and so they're coming back in," said Slade.  "I tell people that we are the box under the crack that catches the kids that fall through the crack."

The student population plays a role in how the schools perform when it comes to state achievement standards as required by the federal government.  

According to the State Department of Education, three of the seven Idaho Virtual Schools made adequate yearly progress, reaching goals for reading, math and language.  Those schools were Richard McKenna, Idaho Virtual Academy and iSucceed Virtual High School. 

Chouinard says Inspire Connections Academy missed the mark barely after making AYP the previous three years.
"This last year with 58 percent new student population we hit 88 percent of our targets," said Chouinard.

"Well, you know, we haven't always made AYP.  We made it last year and it's been a struggle for us because we do have at-risk students that come to us.  But last year we made it, and it was a benchmark for us to be honest with you," said Slade.

Here is another thing to keep in mind:

"It's a publicly funded charter school, so there is no charges, there's no tuition or anything," reminds Slade.

Richard McKenna Charter High School provides a web cam, headset and curriculum. 

Inspire Connections Academy also provides a loaner computer for students and some money for internet costs.

The supplies and materials depend on the individual virtual schools. 

Before enrolling your son or daughter, you will want to ask about that. 

The state teachers union, the Idaho Education Association, gave us some other key questions you will want to ask:

  • What is this school's student-to-teacher ratio? Where can I find that information?
  • What percentage of students complete classes through this provider?
  • How (and how often) does the instructor work with my child as he/she works through lessons?
  • And, how does the instructor keep parents informed of student progress? How frequent are these updates?

Here are some more questions from other people we talked to:

  • What is expected of the parents?   
  • Does the school have an intervention program for kids who struggle?
  • Does the school have programs for advanced students?
  • Does the school provide opportunities for families to get together/field trips/activities?

Consider these thoughts before deciding to sign up for Virtual School. 

"If you struggle with reading, it would not work very well with you," said Wayne.

"If your student struggles in school and was not a self-starter, they're not going to be a self-starter online, even less so," advised Slade.

"The first thing that some people will think about online school is it's online, it's automated, it's going to be easy.  Nothing could be further from the truth," said Chouinard.

"It's  definitely as hard as school.  It's not like it's easier just because it's online.  I've had some people tell me, 'Oh well, since you're taking that class online, it's like you're taking it easier and you can cheat on stuff, but I'm like, it's not, it's harder too," said Sarah. 

"These are schools of choice, and if parents aren't satisfied with the student-teacher ratio, if they're not satisfied with the quality of education their child is receiving, if they're not satisfied with the progress their child is making, they can vote with their feet, they can leave that and go back to the traditional school or exercise other options," said Tom Luna.

Those people KTVB talked to for this story agree on one thing: virtual Schools are not for everybody.  The traditional teacher and student in the same room, face to face method, will often be best for a lot of people. 

One more thing to keep in mind, students can dual enroll.  They can take some classes online and some in a public school.  Sarah Loertscher, for example, takes choir and drawing at Borah High School.  Check with the virtual school and your school district to find out about their policies.