TUSD expects virtual students to double each year
The enticement is substantial.
No classrooms. Teachers only when you want them.
No disruptive classmates.
No high school drama.
Virtual school isn’t the stuff of science fiction.
Last school year, more than 170 virtual schools operated in the United States, with more than 92,000 students, the North American Council on Online Learning said.
High school students have the option of signing up for a school with no walls that loans them computers and printers, gives them a stipend for Internet access and sends their lessons free over cyberspace.
Seven charter schools and seven school districts in Arizona offer virtual programs.
One of the biggest, Arizona Virtual Academy, a kindergarten-through-12th-grade program in operation since 2003, had 3,000 students last school year.
Now iQ Academy Arizona is on the scene, hoping to attract 200 students by the first day of virtual school Aug. 15.
State law allows virtual schools if they are affiliated with established charter schools. iQ Academy Arizona is under Pinnacle Charter School, which has several charters in Arizona, said iQ director Lisa McClure.
School districts such as Tucson Unified, already losing enrollment to charter schools, are looking to begin or expand their distance learning programs as well.
Marana Unified and TUSD have virtual programs.
About 100 TUSD students do distance learning for reasons ranging from being homebound to trying to catch up or get ahead on subjects. The TUSD program even offers PE, a bowling class that meets the state high school graduation requirement.
“Some kids are just done with school. They don’t like the drama anymore,” said Stuart Baker, principal of Tucson Distance Learning, TUSD’s virtual school, which has contracted with Mesa Unified School District’s virtual program for curriculum and support.
TUSD expects virtual enrollment to double each year for the next three years, Baker said.
At Sunnyside Unified, it’s in the discussion stage. It was also an agenda item for future study on a recent Tanque Verde Unified board agenda. Virtual schools have academic as well as convenience advantages.”If we have three kids at one school that want an Advanced Placement psychology class, it won’t be enough to have one, but they can take it online,” Baker said.
William Huston, 16, who will be a sophomore, said he is a bit behind after moving between states and living with one divorced parent and then the other. He thinks iQ Academy Arizona could be the answer for him.
“I won’t have the distractions of other people in class who don’t want to do their work and who are trying to get me to join them,” said Huston, who spends hours each day on the computer.
Virtual classrooms are equally enticing to Rebekah Devine, 16, who will be a junior, and her brother Nathan, 15, who will be a sophomore Their mother, Annette Devine, said both are self-disciplined and motivated.
The Devine children and Huston attended an iQ Academy Arizona open house Saturday.
“The flexible schedule is great and a lot less stressful,” said Rebekah, whose family has home-schooled for the past five years.
iQ Academy Arizona seems to offer more structure than the home-school program they were in last year, Annette Devine said.
William’s mother, Sara Kreisher, said she liked it because “it’s not quite like home-schooling, so I don’t have to be the teacher.”
Rebekah might miss going to a high school prom, as her older sister did, but she said virtual school isn’t going to make her anti-social. She is involved heavily in youth activities at her church in Sierra Vista, she said.
Fourteen-year-old Diana Garcia is on the fence when it comes to the social issues. She just took freshman English I and Algebra I in TUSD’s virtual program. Still, she signed up to start at Tucson High Magnet School next month.
“I’d like to finish high school in three years, so the virtual classes are great,” she said. “This summer I was able to do what I wanted during the day and do my classes at night.”
She even went to a summer camp out of town.
Diana plays the violin, flute and guitar, dances and sings, and she likes the idea of being able to pursue those activities in high school, she said. Still, if the drama of high school gets too crazy or she wants to get a job, “I could to it online totally.”
Her mother, Leticia Miranda-Garcia, said she’ll support her daughter in whatever she does “as long as it’s a positive move.”
“She’s probably learning a little bit more than if she were in a classroom with a teacher, because now she looks up more things on her own instead of relying on a teacher,” she said. “It gives them initiative and when she was done with her classes this summer, she was impressed with herself. It gave her more confidence.”
McClure said virtual school is the “ultimate in freedom.”
McClure said many of the instructors at iQ Academy Arizona – all highly qualified to teach in their subject areas by No Child Left Behind standards – work from home, some in Arizona, some elsewhere.
The school is in Wisconsin and Kansas. In Wisconsin, the academy’s students have outscored the state average and the average of the nearby highly performing school district, according to state records.
Students, if they wish, can go online for a “synchronous classroom” that is held one hour a week per class. Teachers do a live lesson students can see online, usually on a new concept, and can break the students up into small groups online for discussions.
“There also are office hours for teachers and support services are 24/7,” McClure said.
Students can call or e-mail a teacher and be certain of getting a response within 24 hours, and usually sooner, McClure said.
Tests and assignments are graded within three school days. Grades are available online anytime for students and parents.
Without the barriers of location, students from around their state can become great friends with others who share common interests, she said.
“It’s an opportunity to get to know people first, without knowing what they are wearing, what they look like,” McClure said.
iQ Academy schools hire community coordinators, usually parents of their students, who set up “social interactions,” from bowling to visits to water parks to more educational field trips, the director said.
McClure, who has gone around the state this summer doing open houses to attract students, has about 60. More open houses are planned in Tucson later this month.
McClure will accept enrollees through September because she said many students decide soon after entering a traditional high school that it isn’t for them and start looking for another option.
iQ Academy Arizona offers several Advanced Placement courses and many languages, including Spanish, French, German, Chinese and Japanese.
And, said the Devine kids’ older brother Daniel, 23, there’s always the advantage of “getting to do your schoolwork in your pajamas.”
TUSD’s Baker doesn’t see a future where every student will learn at home in front of the computer.
“Some kids are definitely going to feel more comfortable in a classroom setting with a teacher,” Baker said.
“But the numbers of virtually educated students certainly are going to increase,” he said. “Everyone is going to find what’s best for them and we have to provide the options.”
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ON THE WEB
iQ Academy Arizona open house schedule:
2 to 4 p.m. Saturday
Holiday Inn Tucson Airport
4550 S. Palo Verde Blvd.
6:30 to 8 p.m. July 26
Hilton Tucson El Conquistador
10000 N. Oracle Road
6:30 to 8 p.m. July 26
Holiday Inn Tucson Airport
4550 S. Palo Verde Blvd.
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