Reading, Writing and Refrigerator Raids

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And in Colorado, Klicka says, home-schoolers are in danger in other ways. In September, for instance, the superintendent of the Sargent School District in the San Luis Valley came up with an incentive program to increase attendance and revenue in the small district. The superintendent, along with the local board of education, offered home-school parents $600 for each child who visited the public schools; 36 home-school students liked the public schools so much that they decided to enroll. "That proves our point," Klicka says. "Government money is a bait to track people back into the public-school system, which is where we wanted to leave in the first place."

That's not all that Klicka is worried about. The restrictions that come with public oversight can be taxing for parents, he explains. Although virtual school students are educated in the home, they still have to log the equivalent of a set number of days or hours each year, complete assignments by certain dates and adhere to a specific curriculum. If home-schoolers who opt for virtual schools don't realize that going in, he says, they can be in for a big surprise. "You give up the freedom to educate your kids the way you want," he says. "You suddenly need to meet public-school deadlines. You don't have a home school anymore in a pure sense.

"With home schooling, there's the flexibility to go faster or slower in certain subjects or to switch curriculum mid-stream if it's not working for the child. Home school is patterned after the tutorial method, in which a teacher is working with a couple of students or one student to personally design the program so that it works best for the child," Klicka continues. "When that becomes dictated by a bureaucratic system with arbitrary deadlines, the advantages of the tutorial method will disappear, and it's really going to hamper home-schoolers."

Despite warnings from groups like HSLDA, however, virtual schools of all kinds are thriving. Because the Internet is constantly growing and changing, it's hard to know exactly how many there are across the country, but according to the Distance Learning Resource Network, a program of the U.S. Department of Education, there are at least 76 pre-college-level virtual schools. Some are operated by state education departments, some by local public-school districts, some by charter schools and others by private schools or coalitions made up of many school districts. Several colleges and universities also offer Web-based courses for K-12 students.

Florida was the first state to directly fund a statewide virtual school: the Florida High School, formed in 1997 by the Orange and Alachua County school districts. The Kentucky Virtual High School, which started in 1999 as a program of that state's education department, was the first statewide online high school in the country to have been established as part of a state agency. And then there are schools, like the Virtual High School in Massachusetts, that are open to students all over the world; the five-year-old school enrolls approximately 3,000 students from 32 states and eight other countries, including Bolivia and Singapore.

The oldest virtual school in Colorado is the Monte Vista Online Academy, which started in 1995 as a pilot program; when the pilot ended in 1998, it became a full-fledged school, and the legislature passed a law allowing other districts to offer online programs. The Monte Vista school, which is open only to kids in that district, currently enrolls 150 students.

The state's four other Web-based schools all opened in the last year, according to Eric Feder, educational telecommunications director for the Colorado Department of Education. The Jefferson County School District operates Jeffco Net Academy, which has 25 full-time students and five part-time students; the Lester B. Arnold Virtual High School, the online component of an alternative school in Adams County District 14, which has 73 students; VILAS (Vilas Interactive Long Distance Alternative School), in the southeast Colorado town of the same name, which also has 73 students; and COVA, the only virtual charter school in Colorado, which has approximately 400 students.

When COVA program director Kin Griffith was head of the Academy of Charter Schools two years ago, he wanted to create an online component of the school, but he didn't like any of the curricula that were available. And then he found K12, which incorporated a curriculum similar to the Core Knowledge-based program offered in the Academy of Charter Schools.

A for-profit company founded by conservative author, commentator and former U.S. education secretary William J. Bennett in 1999, K12 leases out its curriculum, which focuses on the basic subjects of language arts, math, science, history, music and art, to online schools such as COVA. In addition to Colorado, virtual charter schools in Alaska, California and Pennsylvania use the curriculum, and the company hopes to expand to more states.

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Julie Jargon
Contact: Julie Jargon

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