by Elizabeth Kanna
When Russian-born Wimbledon Champion Maria Sharapova was asked by the press how she continued to impress everyone she met with her literacy and ability to speak fluently and intelligently, she promptly told them she was a student at a virtual high school in the United States. The ability to continue her academic education while she swept tennis tournaments across the U.S., culminating in a stunning victory at Wimbledon in July, is a testament to the power and inherent flexibility of virtual schools. Virtual schools provide parents and children, from Oregon to New York and across the globe to Russia and other countries, with access to world-class curricula, myriad teachers, and support, just about anytime and anyplace. Most importantly, virtual schools provide the power of choice.
The "common school movement" that Horace Mann, Henry Barnard and other reformers created in 1852 did not provide families with many choices. These new public schools were for the training or educating of future factory workers. One hundred and fifty years later, parents have more options available to them for their child's education: public schools, homeschooling, charter schools, homeschool charter schools, magnet schools, private schools, and virtual schools.
Today's virtual school movement has its roots in distance-learning programs and correspondence schools dating as far back as 1929, when the University of Nebraska started distance-learning high-school courses. The new "virtual school" movement underway in the United States is fueled by a technology-rich society, a motivated and literate population of parents, and visionaries in education, technology, and business. Today there are very few paper-based and snail-mail correspondence programs in virtual education; children everywhere can attend a virtual public school at home. Virtual access gives children online curriculum opportunities like "traveling" with Robert Ballard, the scientist who found the R.M.S Titanic, and "visiting" remote locations around the world via the latest satellite and streaming media capabilities.
Like most technology-based products and services in use today, virtual schools, courses, and supplemental programs will continue to improve in usability, power, and speed. For now, the power of technology-delivered, virtual educational programs adds to the options parents can investigate as they make a difficult decision with life-long implications: how their child will be educated.
Are Virtual Schools a Type of Homeschooling?
The answer to this question depends on the virtual school. While most of the learning happens in the home with virtual schools, many of them are public schools without doors. Students who register with a public virtual school are counted as public-school students, not homeschoolers, in their state. These public virtual schools collect ADA (average daily attendance), just like the neighborhood brick-and-mortar school. They offer a standards-based curriculum; require attendance keeping, frequent assessments, and progress reports; and comply with mandated state testing. Some virtual schools or programs are tuition-based, and a parent can choose to use an entire grade's work or supplement in math, driver's education, foreign language, history, and other subjects. A high-school student can participate in make-up and credit programs to enhance their high-school experience.
In the homeschooling world, children who attend conventional schools, either public or private, are considered to be receiving a "traditional" education. "Traditional homeschooling," on the other hand, has typically indicated a family using varied approaches and curricula to have their children learn at home (outside the auspices of a public school). Many traditionally homeschooled children use private distance-learning or a tuition-based virtual school for all or part of their homeschooling career.
Is a Virtual-based Education for Everyone?
Like any school, curriculum, or program, virtual schools work for some families and not for others. Public virtual schools have the same requirements and regulations that brick-and-mortal schools do, along with the support of a credentialed teacher; detailed, standards-based rich lessons; continual assessment; and supplemental learning resources. Some families choose a virtual school because they believe it combines the best of both worlds: the flexibility and individualized instruction inherent in traditional homeschooling, joined with the support and accountability of a public school.
Families facing educational choices need to research all options thoroughly. They must examine their educational priorities in order to determine which features best support their goals. Most importantly, they must decide which method best serves their child's unique needs and talents.
Maria Sharapova's passion is tennis, so her academic training needed to be adjusted to work within the confines of her intense tennis training and playing schedule. A virtual school has helped her continue to learn while she reaches for her dream.
Elizabeth Kanna is the Contributing Editor-at-Large for Homeschooler Network,
co-founder of Homeschool.com, co-author of Homeschooling For Success, and co-founder of GenieU.com.
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