Zoe Lim, right, 6, reacts to hearing what her sister Madeline Lim, 7, and mother Andrea Lim, left, are doing during one of their virtual school lessons in their San Jose, California home. Photo from MCT
While many parents struggle to get their kids out from under
the covers, dressed and off to school, Erinn Watson's
daughters are always on time for class - even when they sleep
Catey and Aiden Watson, of Concord, California, are among the
growing number of students across the Unites States getting
their education online through virtual public schools.
The Watsons, a Coast Guard family, were unfamiliar with local
schools when they moved from Anchorage, Alaska, this year.
"This seemed like the best option, so we decided to go ahead
and do it," Erinn Watson said.
But as online K-12 schools grow in popularity, questions
abound about accountability, high dropout rates and the
ability of brick-and-mortar schools to maintain funding.
"(Online schools) are a big trend in education, but nobody
really knows what to make of them yet," said M.D. Roblyer, an
education professor at Nova Southeastern University in Fort
Lauderdale, Florida, who has studied Web-based schools.
"The opportunity is there. The experience can be as good or
better than face-to-face, but the teachers have to be
qualified and the students have to be ready to learn online."
The majority of cyberschools, which obtain charter status
through local school districts, are publicly funded but
privately run, in some cases for profit.
About 14,000 students in the Bay Area enrolled in virtual
public programs during the 2010-11 school year, according to
the state Department of Education, a 10 percent increase from
the previous year.
Many families are drawn to the individualised education
available through Web learning, said Mina Arnold, programme
co-ordinator for California Virtual Academy, the state's
largest network of online schools.
"(Parents) like the flexibility and ability for the classes
to adapt to the needs of their child," Arnold said.
The programmes offer an appealing option for parents already
planning to home-school their children, taking textbook
lessons and transferring them to a computer screen. They're
also an attractive option for parents interested in educating
their children at home but who may be turned off by the idea
of having to form their own curriculum and lesson plans.
Many parents are drawn to the schools' providing of a
state-approved curriculum that is structured and overseen by
credentialed teachers, said Renee Dodd, a teacher with
California Virtual Academies.
Andrea Lim, of San Jose, said she and her husband decided
early on they wanted to home-school their children.
The online public school option proved the best bet for
providing a well-rounded education, she said.
"It's really helped us bond as a family," Lim said last
month, as her daughters, second-grader Madeline and
kindergartner Zoe, worked at their computers.
Online learners include actors and athletes with heavy travel
schedules, children who stay in their homes because of
medical conditions, military families, and students and
parents uncomfortable or struggling with the social elements
found in brick-and-mortar schools.
Online schools also have a high percentage of high-risk and
special-needs students who arrive behind on credit.
The Lims like that they can dictate the pace of the
curriculum for their girls, provided they show their teacher
they grasp the lessons.
"The students are not held back, or (they) can receive more
support where they are struggling," Dodd said. "Being able to
work one-on-one is a huge benefit."
Aiden Watson, 10, said she enjoys learning online because
she's "not rushed."
"I don't have to worry about time being out," she said.
But Web-based public schools aren't for everyone. Roblyer,
the education professor, pointed out that many online
students drop out.
Parents must be involved in helping their children learn in
the program, but computers, an Internet connection and other
materials are provided free.
"We're up front in letting parents know ahead of time that
they have to be dedicated," Dodd said.
The interaction between teachers and students varies. Erinn
Watson said she meets in person with her girls' teachers once
or twice a quarter. Dodd, however, said she oversees work
submitted by students and their progress on a daily basis.
Teachers are assigned to each class, but their role depends
largely on the school and grade level. Some give lectures
online; others answer questions via email.
The expansion of cyberschools in California has mirrored that
in other states, but some are further ahead in establishing
policies that embrace the concept.
State legislation hasn't kept up in California, said Jim
Konantz, a vice president with K12, the parent company of
California Virtual Academies.
Some districts have pushed back because of rules surrounding
attendance-based funding, he said. California public school
districts receive funding based on the number of students who
attend class each day and lose funds when students transfer
to online charter schools.
"There is a lot of struggle with the whole idea, and
California is way behind the times," Konantz said. "Very
little has to do with the quality of the programme."
In September, Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill that allows
school districts to receive funding for offering synchronous
instruction - when the teacher and student are online at the
same time - to high school students, starting in the 2014
Antioch Unified School District plans to launch an online
programme in the fall, mostly to adapt to how students are
using technology, but in part to help prevent kids from
"We're looking at it because students are using technology
more and more in their daily lives; it just makes sense,"
said Kari Fisher-Gibson, executive director of educational
services of the district.
Scepticism about the quality of instruction remains an
obstacle for online learning.
Online schools' student test scores mirror the state average.
The California Virtual Academies school based in San Mateo
scored 751 on the latest Academic Performance Index. Fame
Public Charter in Alameda County scored 769. The state
average is 778, with 800 the bench mark for proficiency.
Dean Vogel, president of the California Teachers Association,
hopes online teachers are held to the same accountability
standards as those at brick-and-mortar schools. Charter
schools, in general, have been able to "stay outside of the
parameters of acceptable accountability," he said.
He said online schools should be supplementing, not
replacing, the classroom experience.
As for Erinn Watson, she's comfortable with her choice for
"It makes me feel good they are getting all the attention
they need and not worrying about crowded classrooms," she
said. "It feels like they are the only ones in the class."