By Melody Gutierrez | Sacramento Bee
Monday, Jul. 26, 2010 - 12:00 am | Interest in online schools for kindergarten through 12th grade is surging as new virtual offerings flood the market, leading education experts to warn parents that not all programs are equal.
The biggest influx is in credit recovery programs to help students meet graduation requirements. But high-achieving students also are turning to online programs that offer more flexibility, personalized instruction and accelerated courses.
John Fleischman of the Sacramento County Office of Education cautions parents to thoroughly vet online programs, because they don't go through the same rigorous adoption processas curricula at traditional public schools.
"It's buyer, beware," said Fleischman, assistant superintendent of technology services for the county office.
Typically, the state adopts new textbooks and instructional materials in core subjects for kindergarten through eighth grade. At the high school level, individual school districts and charters pick textbooks that meet state content standards.
Online curriculum does not go through the state adoption process at the K-8 level; instead, it is left to individual schools and districts to review the materials.
Ed Mills, associate vice president of student affairs and enrollment at California State University, Sacramento, said parents should make sure online schools are accredited and that they meet admissions requirements for California State University and the University of California.
Local school district and charter program officials say they review online curricula as closely as they would for a traditional school.
"We went through an extensive process," said Anne Zeman, director of curriculum at Elk Grove Unified, which will open its first virtual school in August.
While an array of private companies promote online offerings, public school districts and charter schools from California to New York have added or are adding online schools and virtual credit recovery programs to keep up with market demand.
Elk Grove Unified and neighboring districts have been losing students to online programs such as California Virtual Academies, or CAVA.
"We looked at test scores, curriculum and what they provided," said Bill Lucia, who lives in Elk Grove but will enroll his five children in CAVA this fall.
Lucia is the president of EdVoice, a nonprofit advocacy group dedicated to improving public schools. He said CAVA's curriculum is rigorous and will allow his kids to move at an accelerated pace if they need to. He said his fourth-grade son tested at an 11th-grade reading level.
"There is a perception that online learning is a kid sitting in front of a computer all day long like a robot," Lucia said. "We've found it to be not nearly as much of what you would consider computer-based."
Elk Grove Unified's virtual school will try to pull in families like Lucia's. And new enrollees bring additional state funding.
Elk Grove's Virtual Academy has enrolled 96 students so far, and 76 are new to the district. Students will receive books, maps and other grade-specific supplies to finish the school year from home. Students will report to a real campus to take tests and meet with a teacher face-to-face.
Elk Grove launched a credit recovery program in January. An estimated 500 students have completed courses for credit, Zeman said.
"It's important because there is no summer school," Zeman said. "Our intention is to improve graduation rates and help students who feel discouraged."
Sacramento City Unified is exploring the possibility of adding a virtual school. Sac City is nearly doubling the size of its Accelerated Academy, an online credit recovery program for 11th- and 12th-graders. The program will now accept 250 students.
Twin Rivers opened a virtual summer school this year for students who lack credits.
"There is a big push right now in online credit recovery," Fleischman said. "It seems to be a real focus in California. It's a way to salvage kids who have fallen behind."
Credit recovery programs help districts improve graduation rates to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
"We don't have a handle on what districts are using it and what evaluation was used," Fleischman said. "The real concern is the quality of the courses."
He recommends that parents do the following when evaluating an online school:
• Review the content.
• Assess the design of the school's website.
• Examine the curriculum and make sure it meets college requirements.
• Check the materials for accuracy and fairness.
Fleischman urges parents to consider their children's needs. Would they be suited for a pure online program or one that combines classroom instruction with virtual lessons? "If I was a parent, I would be looking for a relatively high degree of interaction between the teacher and my son or daughter," he said.
Parents should not leave the research to their children, said Fred Lamora, director of instruction at Visions In Education, a public charter serving students in nine Northern California counties that is adding a virtual high school in the fall.
"High school students are seduced by not having to do anything," Lamora said. "They liken it to traffic school. There are a lot of commercials about kids in PJs."
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