Reading, Writing and Refrigerator Raids

The Cartoon Network is blaring in the Sawyer home as Heather and her husband, Ron, clean up the last of the water that leaked from their washing machine the night before. Ten-month-old Ronnie starts crying as he tries to hoist himself onto the couch to get to his mom; he hasn't had his breakfast yet, and he's not happy. Clayton, age five, doesn't seem to have noticed the chaos -- he's been engrossed in an old Flintstones episode.

It's 10 a.m. on a school day in November, and except for the plumbing problem, it's been an average morning. Eventually, Ron leaves for his maintenance job here at the Lakewood apartment complex where he and his family live, while Heather, a stay-at-home mom who also babysits other kids, breastfeeds Ronnie.

Clayton does what he wants until he's ready for school. But instead of walking to Bear Creek Elementary a few blocks away with the other neighborhood kids, he merely heads to the other side of the living room, where his mom turns off Fred and Barney and turns on the Colorado Virtual Academy (COVA), a new public charter school that Clayton and about 400 other students attend in the comfort of their own homes.

Heather logs on to covcs.org and, on this day, pulls up Clayton's geography lesson, a series of interactive Web pages that teach about the earth's makeup. A map of the world appears on the computer screen. "Continents are the biggest pieces of land on the earth," Clayton explains. "The biggest body of water is the ocean."

Clayton reaches for an inflatable globe that COVA sent him; it came in one of the twelve boxes of supplies the school provided free of charge so that its students can have a tactile as well as virtual learning experience. "This is Antarctica," he says, pointing to the right place on the globe. "It's cold. Only penguins live there."

The COVA Web site has instructions to assist Heather in teaching Clayton. She reads one of them to him: "Lay your hand on the Pacific Ocean." He does. "Put your finger on the South Pole." He does, and Heather congratulates him. Most of the lessons require Heather's participation, but some, like the educational geography games, allow Clayton to learn on his own. With the world map still on the screen, he engages a game with the click of his mouse. A computerized voice says "North America." Clayton clicks on the correct spot on the map. Another part of the game involves images of animals; when they appear, Clayton is supposed to match them to their home. A picture of a panda bear pops up, and he clicks on China. A buffalo appears, and he clicks on South America. A buzzing sound indicates to Clayton that he made the wrong choice. He's not sure where buffalo are from, so he opts for a hint. The computerized voice says, "North of South America." Clayton clicks on North America. The computer rings.

Although there are no grades at this school, there is constant assessment. After each lesson, Clayton is evaluated on what he just learned either by his mom, who asks him computer-prompted questions, or by a test. If he answers 80 percent of the questions correctly, he can advance to the next lesson. If not, he must redo the lesson or take an alternate one in which the material is presented differently. Although the initial lessons incorporate all styles of learning, the parent can choose a backup that places more emphasis on auditory learning or on visual or hands-on learning.

Heather and her son are taking part in a new breed of schooling: part public school, part home school. A program of the Academy of Charter Schools, a K-12 charter school in Adams County District 12, COVA is open to children across the state, the vast majority of whom live on the Front Range. Heather was attracted to COVA, which "opened" last fall, because it allows Clayton to learn at his own pace; he takes second-grade math lessons, but the rest of his work is at the first-grade level. If he were in a regular public school, he'd be in kindergarten.

And unlike a regular public school, which sometimes can't even provide enough textbooks in its classes, COVA can afford to provide each student with a computer, a printer and Internet access because it doesn't have to spend money for things that brick-and-mortar schools have to, such as utilities, maintenance and mortgage or lease payments. The school has also given Clayton a closet full of books and school supplies: Kandinsky, Picasso and Matisse prints, as well as finger paints, modeling clay, plaster, chalk, sketch pads, construction paper and tissue paper, for his art lessons; Mozart CDs and a tambourine for music lessons; seeds for science experiments; counting cubes and geometric blocks for math; and books on hieroglyphics and classic children's stories.