Selected readings on US charter schools
The school year that begins Tuesday for an estimated 1.5 million Michigan public school children will represent the most substantial expansion of online education in Michigan, giving students more choices than ever in deciding how they want to take their classes.Five new cyber schools, where students take all their classes online, are opening. Many traditional school districts are boosting their online offerings. And in what may be the biggest change, public school students in Grades 5-12 will be able to take up to two online courses per semester offered by any district or the state’s virtual school — classes that will be part of a statewide catalog of online classes maintained by the Michigan Virtual University (MVU) that will be running in October.
A key feature of this new option: Students will not need permission from their home district to sign up for the classes, and the home district must pay for them. Previously, students could take up to two classes in their own districts, and the districts would decide whether they would allow their students to take the classes elsewhere.
Michigan has been a leader in online education for more than a decade. Since 2009, the number of school districts and charter schools that have permission from the Michigan Department of Education to run programs in which students take all or most of their classes online has grown from 12 to 192.
Combined, these options will provide an unprecedented range of choices for online learning this year.
“I like that the state is offering more opportunities,” said Rachel Miller of Dexter, whose two children will be starting their second year enrolled in the Virtual Learning Academy Consortium, a program operated by Oakland Schools that is available to students in nearly 60 districts in Genesee, Lapeer, Livingston, Oakland, Wayne and Washtenaw counties. “And I feel good that we’re using the modern things that are available to parents.”
The plethora of options means some providers are heavily marketing their programs.
“They’re being aggressive as to trying to offer an alternative to traditional school. If you drive around, you see little signs everywhere,” said Cheryl Azzi, who enrolled her daughter in Nexus Academy of Royal Oak, a new charter school that blends online learning with traditional bricks-and-mortar learning.
Michigan among first
Michigan was among the first states to establish a statewide virtual school for K-12 students — the Michigan Virtual School in 2000. And in 2006, it became the first in the nation to require students to have some kind of online experience to graduate from high school.
Its foray into online education has been controversial at times, including easing the cap last year on the number of cyber charter schools that could open and the number of students who could enroll. That is allowing the five new cyber charters to open; two others have existed since 2011.
Some urge caution in the push for more online education, like Michael Barbour, who this month left a post as an assistant professor of instructional technology at Wayne State University. He worries that easing the cap will lead to too much expansion without regard for quality of the programs. Barbour, who said there’s little research suggesting full-time online programs are effective, also worries that too many districts see online education as a way to keep money in their district, and not as a way to provide an option for students they might be struggling with.
“When those decisions are being driven by economics … then that’s a problem,” said Barbour, who is now at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut.
Jamey Fitzpatrick, president and CEO of MVU, the state-created nonprofit that operates the Michigan Virtual School, said he expects less of the growth of online education to come from students enrolling in full-time cyber schools and more of it — tens of thousands, he predicts — to come from students taking advantage of the new state rules.
“Full-time online cyber schools will continue to expand in Michigan, given the extensive advertising blitz we have seen this summer targeted at parents,” he said. “However, I am doubtful that a large percentage of Michigan parents will enroll their children in these kinds of programs.”
Fitzpatrick said it takes a special kind of student with a lot of support at home to be successful receiving 100% of their education online.
Azzi’s daughter has tried full-time online programs before. But she craved social interaction. Nexus Academy of Royal Oak, located in Beverly Hills, will allow her to spend half her day getting direct instruction in math, language arts and personal fitness at the school. The rest of the day will be spent on her own, taking science, social studies and elective classes online.
“The whole point of online learning is the flexibility, the ability to work at your own pace,” Azzi said.
Dale Bernard, principal at the school, said recently he expects as many as 100 students to be enrolled for the beginning of the school year. Each one will be assigned a success coach, a certified teacher whose job is to mentor students and keep track of their progress.
“Some kids just struggle with being in a school all day, so they want a little variety,” he said.
Parents are guides
Miller’s children had been attending traditional public schools before she heard about the Virtual Learning Academy Consortium. The K-8 program, which is full-time online, requires that parents play a key role in their children’s education — acting as a learning guide. Certified teachers who live in Michigan provide support.
“The curriculum is tried and true. Home schoolers have been using it. Military schools have been using it for decades.”
But it was difficult to make such a dramatic switch. Miller deems it a success, saying her children’s attitudes have done a 180.
“My kids did not want to leave school. … Now, they don’t want to go back.”
About half the students — about 320 at its peak during the last school year — have parents who formerly home schooled them, said Carol Klenow, program administrator.
And though much of the work is done online, students have many opportunities to come together for field trips, speakers and other events.
Klenow acknowledged, however, that trying to stand out when there’s so many options these days can be a challenge.
“But I think the quality we provide, the curriculum we have adopted and with the support of the school districts … I think we are reaching out and getting families to consider this as a viable option.”
Source; Battle Creek Enquirer – by Lori Higgins