Homegrown on the Web – school districts offering electronic education
Jennifer Newton Reents
School districts find advantages to operating their own online instructional programs
Virtual schools may be one way school districts can level the playing field for their students.
Several dozen districts around the country are attempting to do just that. These districts are harnessing the Internet as simply another way to meet the changing needs of their own students, as well as students from other districts. Virtual schools and online courses for precollegiate students are popping up in the smallest and the largest of places.
While some school districts choose to purchase courses generated by outside companies or lease content from existing online schools, a few districts are building their online programs from the ground up, writing their own courses and training their own teachers to create a program all their own (See related story, page 28)–from a pilot project with just three science courses to a well-heeled program that offers a total of 94 courses, with 600 students enrolled in an average of three courses each.
Exactly how many public schools and school districts are creating and operating online programs is unknown, according to Von Pittman, director of the Center for Distance and Independent Study at the University of Missouri-Columbia, who says the rather substantial startup and ongoing expenses may be a limiting factor.
“It is my impression that many of them have underestimated the cost of setting up an infrastructure, including student services,” he says. “And I do not think that most school districts understand that maintenance of an online program is very expensive.”
Still, Pittman says, school districts will find advantages to developing their own curricular materials for their students’ online courses rather than relying on statewide agencies or proprietary companies.
“Teachers licensed in the appropriate states, developing materials congruent with those used in the classrooms of their districts, will do a better job,” Pittman says. “Their work will not be as slick as that of some of the proprietary outfits, but it will have more integrity, in terms of their, the school district’s, mission. Proprietary outfits must work on a one-size-fits-all basis. They can make their products attractive to local school districts only by keeping the cost down. That means mass production.
“My advice would be that school districts take a very hard look at the options. And perhaps they would be well served to engage disinterested consultants who know the ins and outs of online course development,” he says.
“But however they proceed, everyone involved should understand that distance education is not cheap. Online education has some advantages, but economy is not one of them. Done well, it is quite expensive.”
The School Administrator looked at the efforts of five school districts to develop their own program of online course offerings, allowing them to share just how and why they did it as well as the successes they are experiencing.
For those districts, leveling the playing field in education is no longer an unattainable dream but a reality.
The Basehor-Linwood Virtual Charter School in Basehor, Kan., started in 1997 as a way for the growing number of families with home-schooled children to connect with an accredited curriculum, certified support staff, textbooks, resource materials and a computer.
The virtual school functions as a charter school within the Basehor-Linwood School District. Today it serves about 375 students in kindergarten through 12th grade and offers 49 courses.
The 30 teachers who run the virtual classes must attend a two-week summer training workshop before they can teach an online course. These staff teach full time at traditional schools during the day and communicate via e-mail and phone with their virtual audience after regular school hours. They hold office hours in a chat room where students can ask about assignments or discuss topics with classmates.
The teachers receive $4,000 per online course in supplemental pay.
While 90 percent of the students are home-schoolers, the virtual school has expanded its reach and now enrolls students from traditional schools throughout Kansas and beyond who want to advance their studies, who were expelled from their local schools or who are pregnant or experiencing health problems that make attendance difficult.
The Virtual Charter School rents district-owned textbooks to students for a one-time charge of $40 and provides each family with a computer for a $20 rental fee for use while the child is enrolled in the program. Students outside the state pay $150 per course per semester.
The school last year received $3,700 per student from the state and operated on a $1.38 million budget.
VCS offers core courses, including algebra, biology, U.S. and world history and even physical education, “Students learn about activities, sports, rules, regulations and are tested on them,” Brenda DeGroot, the virtual school’s director, says. “They have to log the time they spend in actual activities. They may go to a gym, lift weights, do aerobics or sky diving, snow skiing, swimming, horseback riding, etc. It is wide open for P.E.”
The Virtual Charter School also offers elective courses such as art, child care, computer keyboarding, business and independent living.
DeGroot says when the district first looked at the possibility of providing online instruction, administrators decided that Basehor-Linwood educators should write their own courses rather than tap into the offerings of other groups.
DeGroot, formerly an assistant principal and athletic director at Basehor-Linwood High School, says involving local teachers in course development ensured better buy-in and aligned the curriculum with the state’s academic standards. “If you buy a packaged program, you have to go in and tweak it,” she says. “There’s a lot of work aligning it with what you are doing.”
Basehor-Linwood Superintendent Cal Cormack says having his teachers develop the online courses from the ground up significantly benefits the Virtual Charter School.
“Our staff has great insight into the need for and the process of alignment as a result of their ongoing work with the VCS,” he says. “Had I been given the option three years ago to purchase a curriculum that met our needs, I would have. However, I didn’t have that option and I think the necessity of developing it ourselves has had a very positive impact on the district. We are fortunate the option (of purchasing content) was not available to us.”
Clintondale Virtual High School, located in a small school district northeast of Detroit, was originally intended to be an adult education program.
But school officials decided to develop a comprehensive virtual high school so students who needed to make up credits or wanted a stiffer academic challenge could have the opportunity to learn in a different way. So after three years of planning, the school got its start in January, says Lynn Michaelson, program director.
All 20 courses now offered by the virtual school are the same as those at the traditional high schools in the 3,332-student Clintondale Community Schools in Macomb County, Mich. The school serves students in grades 9 to 12 but plans to gradually add grade levels down to the 3rd grade. Course offerings will be expanded slightly.
Twenty-five students enrolled in the school’s inaugural semester last spring. Michaelson says she doesn’t know how many were home-schooled. Clintondale students must complete their online coursework within 18 weeks, and courses are open to any students in or out of the district.
The virtual school’s chat rooms include a “white board,” which allows the teacher to demonstrate concepts (such as solutions to mathematics problems). Teachers can use PowerPoint presentations or pull up a Web site for the class to view. This is done in real time and viewed by all the students simultaneously. The chat area also allows a teacher to have pre-assigned groups of students interact live for projects, panels or discussions. Discussion boards, similar to Internet forums, feature ongoing dialogue threads that allow students to exchange information and opinions.
Clintondale teachers write all course syllabi, Michaelson says.
“We haven’t ruled out purchasing content from vendors but we wanted to meet all the benchmarks for the state,” Michaelson says. “Course development is very time consuming and at the point when we started there was no content our there. We may have to resort to that when we start going into electives, when we start expanding our course choices. … At this stage of the game we would love to develop our own.
Clintondale Virtual High School was started with funds from a private donor. All students pay $325 per course. Clintondale had an operating budget last year of $467,000 to cover four full-time staff and technology and educational consultants as needed. Part-time teachers are paid $17.50 per hour.
Michaelson says the school anticipates receiving state funding in the near future. She says the school’s ultimate goal is to serve 10,000 students and offer 1,000 courses.
Evergreen Internet Academy
The Evergreen Internet Academy, part of the 22,000-student Evergreen School District in Vancouver, Wash., opened in 1999 with the purpose of providing an alternative to the traditional school setting. Last spring the academy served 260 students in grades 6 through 12. Nearly two-thirds were Washington residents who lived outside the school district and 73 percent of all students were home-schoolers.
Brian Grimsted, principal of Evergreen Internet Academy, says the school receives $4,200 in per-pupil funding from the state for each full-time student. This allows the school to charge only those students who are taking classes for credit recovery and those whose home school district will not give them a boundary exception, which allows state dollars for that student to flow directly to the Internet Academy. Tuition for these students is $295 per half credit.
The academy has three full-time teachers and offers 52 core and elective courses. Students are required to have daily contact with their teachers via e-mail or threaded discussions. They also meet face-to-face once a week. If the student lives in another part of the state, phone and e-mail contact suffice, Grimsted says.
“Our teachers act as coaches,” he says. “We try to choose teachers who were great working with students and good with technology.
Grimsted says the Evergreen Internet Academy was started because administrators believe the Internet gives students another way to succeed academically. The 52 courses currently offered were written by Evergreen teachers to ensure they are aligned with state standards, Grimsted says. However, the academy plans to purchase some courses this year to expand the offerings.
Still in its infancy, Hop-On!–a pilot project of the Hopkins, Minn., School District–began modestly by offering online courses in astronomy, biology and chemistry during the past school year.
Twenty high school students enrolled during the first year, and the district expects a modest increase in enrollment this year due to the expansion in the number of courses being offered. During the summer the program supplemented its offerings and added civics, writing and English, leading to a summer enrollment of 48 students and a waiting list, says Jody Ouradnik, technical support specialist for the Hopkins district.
“Our goal is to have 15 courses online by the end of the 2001-02 school year,” she says. “I think we’ll reach that without much difficulty because we have about 10 other teachers actively developing courses in addition to the ones that are ready to go.”
The intent behind Hop-On! is to serve students who need to make up classes for graduation, those who want to complete extra classes for credit, home-schooled or homebound students, adjudicated youth and lifelong learners of all ages. Among the first group of enrollees, only one student was a home-schooler.
Hop-On! primarily intends to enroll students from its own district but is beginning to see interest among outside students, Ouradnik says. Hop-On! has not charged for its online courses because students either have come from within the district or the student’s home district has agreed to allow some of its state funding to go to Hopkins.
Funding issues in Minnesota complicate whether Hopkins will open its registration to out-of-district students. “Currently the student’s home district would have to agree to allow part of their state funding for that student to flow to our district before the student can register for our online courses,” Ouradnik says. “Given the tight budget situations that most Minnesota schools are finding themselves in, other districts are reluctant to even tell their own students about programs that might take state funding away from the home district.”
Hopkins officials don’t want Hop-On! to be viewed as competition to other public schools.
The district is considering charging about $350 in tuition for a one-credit course for a non-Hopkins student. “We have no way of collecting state funding for those kids,” Ouradnik says.
The school district gave the program about $150,000 in operating funds and will provide about the same this year. Hop-On! also received a $10,000 grant from the ADC Corp. that will allow Hop-On! to make computer equipment and Internet access available to students who want to take online courses but who don’t have home computers.
“We feel that we really need closer to $300,000 per year in order to provide all the courses and equipment that are needed for a comprehensive program,” Ouradnik says. “Most of the money would be needed to buy teacher time so they aren’t trying to write or develop their courses in the evening after working a full day teaching in the traditional classroom.”
Hop-On! has two half-time administrative staff members and about 30 instructors who have completed a technical training program to learn how to post their courses online. Teachers are paid a stipend of $2,000 to develop each one-credit course and $1,500 to deliver their course online.
“Our hope is that within the next year we will be offering a broad enough range of courses and have enough students registering for online courses that we might be able to start incorporating it into a teacher’s regular contract,” Ouradnik says. “In other words, our English teacher might be able to replace a traditionally taught day course with online sections because there will be enough state aid flowing to make that feasible without jeopardizing the FTE’s that are available for regular classroom courses.”
Ouradnik says the district opted to develop its own courses to ensure flexibility. “We needed to know what the quality of the program was and if the courses were as rigorous as anything they would do in the classroom.”
The major challenge for the district, she says, is providing teachers the dedicated time they need to focus on writing online curricula and preparing Web-based instruction.
“It turned out not to be the technical challenge we thought it would be,” Ouradnik says. “It has more to do with making sure the material you are putting up is high quality.”
The Internet Academy
The Internet Academy in Federal Way, Wash., is one of the larger virtual programs among school districts, offering 94 courses for students in kindergarten through grade 12. About 600 students–70 percent of whom come from outside the Federal Way School District–were enrolled during the past school year. About 10 percent are home-schoolers.
The program, with an operating budget of about $1.3 million (all but $200,000 coming from the stare) employs 12 full-time teachers and three staff members. The academy pays a stipend of $25 per student per month to those reaching an online course in addition to their traditional classroom assignment.
State government pays for students to take up to five courses. After that, the cost is $275 for each course, says Jan Bleek, Internet Academy principal. All students whose residence is outside of the state pay tuition and all students, regardless of residence, pay for online summer school classes.
The program started six years ago as an elementary school program after parents in the district wanted more educational options for their home-schooled children.
The course offerings today go well beyond the basics to includes classes on art appreciation, dinosaurs, electricity, marine science, the stock market and weather.
The Internet Academy operates a lab of 24 computers, which is housed in a business complex in Federal Way. The facility also provides office space for Internet Academy teachers. Students can come in and work with certified teachers if they need tutoring.
Students “can go as quickly as they want or slow themselves down. They have a year to complete the course,” Bleek says. “For some kids a standard course is 18 weeks and it may take them 35 weeks to get through the course so they are not penalized if they work slower … and we have others who can complete an 18-week course in 12 weeks.”
While most of the Internet Academy’s content was created in house, the program has purchased all its mathematics courses from an outside company.
“We have a whole process for developing courses,” Bleek says, adding that developing their own courses ensures the content is aligned with state and district standards. “Our teachers are experienced classroom teachers. They know what’s important in a course. They can pretty well take a subject area … and focus on the strategies, the thinking skills the students need to come to the course with, and we can also develop our own assessments. Students know right away what is expected of them and those things don’t always appear in a (commercially developed) program. … We have a lot more control over things.”
Jennifer Newton Reents is a free-lance writer in Wichita, Kan.
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