Texas Virtual Academy lets kids attend public school online
06:11 AM CST on Monday, January 7, 2008
By KAREN AYRES SMITH / The Dallas Morning News
Going to school now means going online for Victoria McClure-Esqueda.
Victoria McClure-Esqueda, 8, squeezes her eyes shut to envision the correct answer to a math problem at home in Irving with her mother, Jenifer McClure. Victoria attends school online, but workbooks are still in the equation.
The Irving 8-year-old is one of hundreds of students across North Texas who have enrolled at the Texas Virtual Academy at Southwest, an online public school that opened to area students for the first time in 2007.
The students work at home and study a curriculum created by a contracted company, but they can earn the same credits as students who attend any other public school in the state.
For Victoria, online learning means studying some advanced fourth-grade courses and, perhaps more important, not slacking off.
Link: Southwest Schools
Link: TEA electronic course pilot description
"She kind of just decided to zone out at school," said Jenifer McClure, Victoria's mother. "If she's at home, we know she won't be zoning out because she doesn't have that option."
The growing program puts Texas in the middle of a booming national experiment with online education.
Companies across the country have signed lucrative deals with state and local education agencies to offer curriculum and technology services in exchange for part of the money that typically goes to local school districts.
Advocates and scholars of online education say the technology lets students work at their own speeds, but monitoring student attendance and performance can be challenging when students don't see their teachers every day.
The Texas Education Agency has long allowed school districts to offer some online courses, but this program marks a major shift because the state is now paying a public charter school to educate students who never attend the school building.
The program looks a lot like home-schooling, but it carries far more requirements: Professional teachers monitor students' attendance and academic progress every day. The students must also pass the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills tests.
Kate Loughrey, TEA's distance-learning director, said TEA is closely monitoring the school's test scores and other factors to see what works. The results could shape virtual education across the state for years to come.
"We knew as a state that [online learning] is something that can offer terrific opportunities to kids in different situations," Ms. Loughrey said. "We're conducting the program so we can learn what we need to learn as a state in order to support and enable quality online learning."
Victoria starts her day around 8 a.m.
A precocious middle child, she plops in front of a computer squeezed next to a television in her family's Irving apartment. The school sent the computer and boxes of supplies at no cost when she enrolled last month.
First up is answering her teacher's question of the day – today, it's in history – designed to prepare her for the upcoming state TAKS tests that all virtual students must take.
Victoria pinpoints the location of the original 13 colonies. By sending her answer, she confirms to her virtual teacher that she is present for the day.
Her dad and at-home teacher, Joe Esqueda, lets her pick her next subject. The school lays out her schedule for the day, but she gets to choose the order.
Her pick, as usual, is math.
She has already studied the introduction to dividing large numbers online, so she moves over to one of several workbooks scattered across a coffee table. Much of her time is spent offline, reading books or doing experiments, for example.
Victoria was a third-grader at Gilbert Elementary, but her placement test for virtual school showed she was ready for fourth grade in some subjects, including math.
Her dad helps with a tough question.
When they both need help, they e-mail her virtual teacher. Or Ms. McClure fills in when she gets home from work.
"If she is stuck on it, we can go over it 300 times," Ms. McClure says.
Victoria must earn at least an 80 percent on this lesson's assessment to move to the next one. She asks her mom for help, but her parents won't assist when it comes to grades.
"It's a test; I can't touch it," Ms. McClure tells her daughter.
Victoria will soon get a break for lunch. By the end of the day, she'll have spent about six hours working on her lessons, even literature, which she could do without.
Most days, she'll also have run around a track for exercise and attended Girl Scout meetings or outings with other virtual school students to hang out with kids.
"It's fun," Victoria says of virtual school.
That's a big step for a girl who was so bored at school a few months ago that she didn't turn in completed assignments. Her dad found them under the couch.
Still, her parents aren't sure whether it would work for their other two children – Megan, 6, and Alex, 11 – who both do well at Gilbert Elementary.
Victoria "wants to be the center of attention at all times," Mr. Esqueda says with a laugh as he turns to his daughter. "Now finish your assessment, baby girl. Now."
One size 'doesn't fit all'
Victoria is one of about 550 students who have enrolled in the virtual academy as part of the state's electronic course program.
Many students want the chance to work at an advanced or slower pace. Some are home-schooled. Others suffer from medical problems that make school attendance difficult.
"I've been in the public school classroom to know that one size really doesn't fit all," said Feyi Obamehinti, Victoria's teacher who has taught in Irving and Dallas. "Students here are looked at individually, not across a grade level."
The state granted Southwest Schools, a Houston-based charter school, permission to launch the virtual school a few years ago for students in the Houston area. It received approval to expand in the Dallas and Fort Worth regions in September. It's capped statewide at 750 students.
The school signed an agreement with K12, a Virginia-based company that provides content for 39,500 students in 17 state-run virtual schools and other programs across the country.
The deal calls for K12 to provide computers, curriculum and support in exchange for a portion of the state funding. The final cost will depend on how many students enroll. K12's revenues have soared from work in other states. The company went public Dec. 13.
Mary Gifford, a K12 vice president who covers the Texas region, said K12 adjusted its curriculum to match the requirements in Texas. For example, the company created a Texas history course for seventh-graders.
"This has been a gigantic investment on K12's part into the state of Texas," Ms. Gifford said.
Reviewing TAKS data
The state leaves it up to Southwest to run the program.
"Just like with bricks-and-mortar schools, we presume that teachers are doing their jobs and teaching what needs to be taught," Ms. Loughrey said. "We don't send people in the classroom to observe them."
Leaders of K12 and Southwest say they rely on parents, technology and their staff of teachers to monitor attendance and progress. A student who wants to sit on the couch all day will not last, they say.
"It's not the classroom for all students; it's the classroom for some students," said Janelle James, chief academic and operating officer for Southwest Schools. "The student who might not benefit from this program is someone who needs that interaction on an everyday basis."
Virtual academy officials say results from 2007 show that average TAKS scores for students in the Houston program exceeded state requirements, but Ms. Loughrey said the agency is still reviewing the data.
"We're taking it one year at a time," she said. "They don't have unlimited approval."
Nationally, online education for kids in elementary through high school has grown by about 30 percent a year since 1997 to 92,000 full-time students and thousands of part-time students taking roughly 1 million courses, according to the North American Council for Online Learning.
"We haven't even scratched the surface of offering online courses that students and parents want to see," said Susan Patrick, the group's president.
Still, John Hoyle, a professor of educational administration at Texas A&M University, said there is no research to show learning with technology is any better than learning in a traditional classroom.
"We have no solid evidence," he said. "We haven't come up with sophisticated enough techniques to see if technology really improves learning over a traditional classroom."
Dr. Hoyle said online programs can be hard to hold accountable, but they can be a good option for some students not served well by a traditional school.
K12's success will depend on reaching parents of those students. The company has held several information sessions in the Dallas-Fort Worth area since fall. More are scheduled this month.
After a recent session in Fort Worth, Tanya Kirkland, a home-schooling mom, said she decided to enroll her daughter, a sixth-grader.
"My concern is meeting my individual child's needs," said Ms. Kirkland of Waxahachie. "I don't want to see her stifled."
HOW DOES ONLINE SCHOOL WORK?
How does the Texas Virtual Academy at Southwest work?
Who is eligible?
Students in grades three to eight who live in three of the Texas Education Agency's geographic regions: Region IV (Houston/Galveston), Region X (Dallas) or Region XI (Fort Worth). The program is limited to a total of 750 students.
How much does it cost families?
Nothing. Students work at home on computers. The school does not charge tuition, lends a computer to students and provides all instructional materials. Families can be reimbursed for their Internet connections.
Who runs the school?
Southwest Schools, a Houston-based charter school, partnered with a company called K12 to provide curriculum and management services. K12 is a national for-profit company that runs virtual schools across the country.
Who created the curriculum?
K12 uses teachers and other experts to create the online curriculum. It was adapted to meet requirements in Texas.
What courses are offered?
Language arts, math, science, history, music and art are the core courses. There will also be other courses in the appropriate grade levels, such as physical education.
Does the school have teachers?
Yes. Teachers monitor students' academic progress and attendance. They conduct virtual lessons and answer questions from students and parents. Each teacher works with roughly 50 students.
How does the school monitor attendance?
Students must respond to daily questions issued by their virtual teachers. Teachers also monitor students' progress on completing required lessons. Students who don't meet attendance rules can be held responsible under truancy laws.
How does the state measure accountability?
All students must take the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.
How is the program funded?
The state pays Southwest Schools roughly the same per-pupil funds other public schools receive. Southwest pays the teachers, receives a 2 percent oversight fee, and receives some additional fees for academy-related expenses. K12 retains the remaining funds. Total funds for this year will depend on final enrollment.