One year ago I wrote a column, “Our Dirty, Little ,Not-So-Secret Approach to Learning,” at the start of the 2009-2010 school term. I explained what it felt like to be a homeschooling family in the middle of a ferocious throng of relatives whose years of teaching in public schools would, if combined, easily top a number over three hundred. The big question for us at family functions was, invariably, this one:
“When are you going to put those kids back in school?”
Here at the beginning of the 2010-2011 school year, I can now answer those well-meant queries in a brand-new way:
All of my school-aged children are enrolled in a Georgia public school; just not the one around the corner from our house.
We discovered Georgia Cyber Academy last fall when it became apparent that our second child, Jonathan, a lively, intelligent, mildly oppositional soul, needed more structure and, frankly, a different (better) teacher than what my version of homeschooling was offering him. After the usual wailing and gnashing of teeth that accompanies any major change in a child’s education program, Tom and I enrolled him in GCA at the mid-year point and had an experience that was so overwhelmingly positive, we decided to enroll all of our other children for the coming year as well. With GCA’s 2010 enrollment expected to reach 6,000 students - making it the largest public school in Georgia- combined with the recent State Department of Education’s approval of a GCA 9th grade program, we weren’t the only parents who made an easy and enthusiastic leap onto the fast-moving, virtual school train.
For one thing, it was free. Free is good. I like free. No less than fifty pounds of books and science supplies showed up at my door and no one handed me a bill. If I we had needed a computer, they’d have shipped that, too.
For another, it was fully staffed with experienced, Georgia-certified teachers who had a clearer vision of how to get Jonathan performing at a higher level than I did. By the time the school year ended, he was exactly where a Georgia 6th grader-going-on-7th-grader ought to be. We had regular, “face time” with his homeroom teacher who lived a half-hour away, along with daily emails, phone conferences and the live, weekly, online class sessions with his other teachers and classmates in addition to scheduled field-trips and the full week of on-site CRCT testing.
Some critics of virtual schools fear goofy, lackluster parents will simply abandon their children to a computer screen. This is unfounded, uninformed and frankly, in this instance, impossible. As the official, “learning coach,” for Jonathan, I couldn’t have done this even if I’d wanted to. I had to monitor how much time he was spending in his subjects because not only was I logging his attendance down to the minute in each area, I had to know how well he was doing -or not doing- because the computerized element of the curriculum would not allow him to take a single online test without me signing him in. For every 5.5 hours Jonathan logged, I put in at least as much time. If anything, virtual education requires significantly more participation from parents -as well as the sacrifice of income- than the traditional school setting and in the long-run, it’s difficult to imagine that more parental involvement in a child’s education will have a negative impact on our current, frantic version of society.
At the same time, firestorms in the way of lawsuits are erupting. Seven Georgia school districts -presumably using tax dollars meant for teacher salaries and student resources- recently and unsuccessfully brought a suit to court to have the Georgia Charter Schools Commission dissolved on the grounds that it and charter schools like Georgia Cyber Academy -operating with half the funding of traditional schools, I might add- are unconstitutional.
Make no mistake. This thinly-veiled dispute is mired in plain, old money. These school districts are losing students to these alternative choice public schools and when systems lose students, they lose dollars.
Virtual public schools are not going away. If anything, they’re only going to rapidly increase in popularity as more states approve them, more families discover them and our current governor’s race has already included a candidate who has spoken in favor of needed, equitable funding. I don’t believe virtual programs will or should ever fully replace the traditional institution as some have morosely predicted in the past to frighten teachers -and there are no virtual athletic programs- but they do operate very efficiently and without disciplinary impediments. They are ideal for both a gifted learner and a student who is simply not fitting in or flourishing well in a traditional setting.