Terminal Solution

Tiny Branson throws itself a lifeline with its online school.

The CSAP isn't the only place where cyber-education has struggled. Some online schools boast only a 60 percent course-passing rate. Monte Vista's McFadden recalls one high school senior who took six years to complete her studies. Littleton Schools superintended Stan Scheer, whose district offers online classes, notes that about half of his students taking such courses never finish them.

Even with the brightest students, figuring out how, exactly, to best transfer material from a computer into a child's mind remains a huge question mark. Online learning is so new that discovering what works and what doesn't is a trip into the unknown. While parents and educators may argue strenuously over how well public schools are doing their jobs, at least students know what to expect: a teacher and a pile of textbooks. With computers, 2,000 years of educational tradition are being thrown out the window.

"When we started, we had a terrible program," admits Jerri Stucky, principal of Alamosa High School and director of its 34-student cyber-school. "There is a wide range of quality out there. At first we thought, 'Well, the computer does it all!' But that's a misnomer. What doesn't work is sitting a kid in front of a computer and not interacting with anyone. And there are still lots of programs that just copy textbooks onto a computer."

 
Jing Tsong
 
Branson's 1923 school is home to 43 students.
Branson's 1923 school is home to 43 students.

"Five years ago, there was very little curriculum that you could buy that was worth using," adds Vilas's Hines. "We wrote our own the first year. The second year, we canned it and started over. It's real easy to bore kids to death." Add to that the difficulty of finding an electronic learning system that works for students with diverse needs. As is the case with most online schools, many of Vilas's students are public-school dropouts. About a quarter are girls with babies; 10 percent have to work while they attend school.

"Generally speaking," Hines says, "online curriculum isn't interactive enough; there's too much reading. And if our students didn't do it before they came to us, why would they do it now?"

The fact that online schools are still learning how to make their programs work can be seen in the vast differences in the operation of those schools. Branson says its 24-to-one student-to-teacher ratio works best, while the state's largest cyber-school, Colorado Virtual Academy (COVA), a K-8 charter school in Adams County, claims that its computer curriculum is so good that its student-teacher ratio, fifty to one, is sufficient.

"We're more high-tech; they're more high-touch," says COVA principal Kin Griffith, by way of explaining his less teacher-intensive approach. COVA also requires that its teachers contact students a minimum of once every other week; at Branson, it's once a week. "The COVA teacher is really a coach or supervisor for the student's parent," notes one administrator.

Monte Vista, meanwhile, the grandfather of Colorado's online schools, has decided to keep more of the traditional school in its online program. "We still use teachers; we don't use software to educate our children," says program director Alan McFadden. While other cyber-schools use teachers working out of their homes, for instance, Monte Vista's online teachers remain on site: "Our teachers come into this building every day with a tie on. We're a community, not just a service."

"In some ways, [the variety of approaches] raises concerns about quality assurance," concedes Stevan Kalmon, a senior planning consultant for the Colorado Department of Education's Educational Technology Center. As a state, he says, "we're subsidizing this learning experience without really knowing if it's a quality one."

Even though cyber-schools are a new breed of educational animal, they have been, by necessity, forced to work within an already firmly established educational system. The clash between the two learning methods has ripped plenty of fault lines. One topic that has generated a huge amount of discussion recently, for example, is special education.

In many important ways, online schools are the perfect forum for handicapped students, who represent one of the fastest-growing segments of the online student body. Learning out of the home can make life easier for handicapped pupils unable to navigate the physical challenges and social perils of regular schools. Yet many such students also require plenty of one-on-one attention from educational specialists, such as speech and hearing pathologists, which can't be delivered over a computer.

The issue is how to pay for these services. So far, most cyber-schools have billed the school districts where the students live -- a system permitted by state law. The costs can easily rise to thousands of dollars per student, though. As a result, many "old school"administrators are becoming more and more unhappy with the arrangement.

"What we're doing is applying old ideas to new concepts, and they just don't work," argues Littleton's Scheer, who has fought against the payments. He argues that cyber-schools should have to educate all of their students, including special-ed students, using the $5,511 per pupil they collect from the state -- just as other public schools do. Billing extra for services like special education, he says, is double dipping.

Yet the whole idea of what it costs to educate a student over the Internet is a bit of a mystery. Stucky, of Alamosa, says her figures show it costs about $7,200 per student per year to educate a child electronically. Tim Snyder, of Colorado Online Learning, counters that his research shows the figure is less than $5,000.

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