By Connie Llanos, Staff Writer | LA Daily News
History teacher Robert Nelli demonstrates how online courses work during an open house at LAUSD's City of Angels School. (Hans Gutknecht/Staff Photographer)
08/14/2010 11:07:51 PM PDT -- Distance learning at Los Angeles Unified has grown steadily over the past several years, but this fall the school district will open its first ever virtual high school.
Los Angeles Virtual High School Academy will be a full-time online school enrolling some 650 ninth- and 10 th-graders during the 2010-11 school year.
The goal is to have a K-12 online school in the near future, said Themy Sparangis, LAUSD's chief technology director.
"Our vision is to create a self-contained virtual schools program," Sparangis said.
For the last three years, the district has offered advanced or remedial courses to students who needed the added flexibility.
In 2007, some 300 students were enrolled in at least one online course. By 2009, that number had soared to 2,500.
Cleveland High School student Sydney Angel prefers calculating the volume of spheres and discussing the plot of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" from her bedroom rather than a classroom.
"I found it much easier to focus at home, it's quiet and I can work at my own pace," said Sydney, 16.
She was one of nearly 1,000 LAUSD students who this summer enrolled in online courses, part of a growing number making the shift from traditional to virtual classrooms.
Launching a full-time online campus opens a door for nontraditional students, like those who have been home schooled or gone to charter or private campuses, to enroll at LAUSD.
"This is definitely a way to bring another option for our families ... We can keep them here rather than having them leave," Sparangis said.
Of course, for some parents the idea of trading in a desk and textbooks for a laptop is a significant adjustment.
Marcy Angel, Sydney's mother, admits she was skeptical about her daughter taking an online course at first.
As an art teacher at Reseda High School, Marcy Angel said she resisted the idea of having a web chat room replace the unique classroom environment.
"I don't want to have teachers outsourced by a computer," she said.
Still, online summer school made it possible for the Angels to take a summer vacation while Sydney also took care of her academics.
"It is true teachers need to build one-on-one interaction with students ... but in some cases taking an online course can be beneficial. I saw her reading and typing a lot for her English class and she watched posted videos for math," Marcy Angel said.
Nationally, the shift from traditional to online learning has exploded in recent years with private and charter schools launching programs for students completely online.
Caprice Young, a former LAUSD board member who now works to develop online learning programs, said having purely online courses at a public school district like LAUSD is a step forward.
But she stressed that moving local students into the 21 st century will involve incorporating elements of web-based learning into all classrooms.
"Online learning isn't just about isolating a student with a computer," Young said.
"Its about integrating a student's learning experience with the vast community of online learners and doing it in the context of a public school environment ... the main thing is our public schools have to be preparing students for the work they are going to do when they graduate."
Young said school districts can, for example, bring more rigorous courses like foreign language or college math-level classes to schools that otherwise wouldn't be offering those classes because of costs or hiring issues.
Hundreds of schools in New York and Chicago are embracing that idea, Young said.
"Fully online is great, but the push needs to be in creating a more blended learning model," she added.