'A different kind of learning experience'

Written by Jillian Daley
Lake Oswego Review

Online schools in Oregon are growing, but educators worry about how students learn and their opportunity to socialize with peers

Lake Oswego resident Steve Munt pulled his daughter, Jamie, from Lakeridge Junior High when she was in sixth grade. She was bullied, he didn’t feel his 11-year-old daughter was safe at school, and that’s all he has to say about that.

But Munt has plenty of good things to say about Oregon Connections Academy, an online public charter school where his daughter is flourishing.

“She was struggling,” he says. “Now she’s got an ‘A’ in every class.”

Jamie, who is now in the eighth grade, feels more comfortable at home with her father close by and the family pets to keep her company. To stay social, she’s been meeting peers through extracurricular activities, such as karate and swimming.

“I really didn’t like public school,” Jamie says. “Too many distractions. A lot of my friends would be talking in class, so I would, too.”

Jamie may head to Lakeridge High School next fall, but nothing’s set in stone. For now, her dad is able to stay home, guide her education and make sure she’s getting the most out of what has become a viable alternative for many K-12 students, who say they aren’t finding what they need at traditional brick-and-mortar schools.

The Munts, it seems, are part of a trend.

There are 10 virtual charter schools in Oregon, and they’re growing fast. Most schools won’t have final enrollment numbers until Oct. 1, but Oregon Connections Academy expects more than 3,700 students to attend its classes this fall, a far cry from the 650 students who attended when the school was established 10 years ago.

From 2009-10 to 2013-14, Oregon Virtual Academy saw its enrollment jump from 446 to 1,682 students; Baker Web Academy (from 268 to 395) and Estacada Web Academy (from 307 to 354) also saw increases, according to the Oregon Department of Education.

But the debate surrounding the efficacy of online schools has grown as well, with educators divided about the way students learn and about the potential lack of socialization. All of that is food for thought for officials at brick-and-mortar schools, says Joe Morelock, the Lake Oswego School District’s executive director of secondary education.

“It provides us an opportunity to have a deeper discussion,” Morelock says, “about what it is we’re not providing and what we could be providing.”

The debate

Most K-12 online schools in Oregon are charter schools, which means that they must meet the same Common Core State Standards as traditional schools. But some experts say they’re concerned about how students learn, not just what they’re taught.

“Research on the brain tells us that learning is both individual and socially constructed,” says Jane Stickney, deputy superintendent of West Linn-Wilsonville School District. “Students make sense of learning by talking with others and gaining from timely feedback. Students make connections with learning while working both individually and in groups. Online schools are limited in their ability to provide productive collaborative learning time.”

Other educators say traditional schools may not be right for some kids, who could benefit from an environment in which they can learn at their own pace in their own way.

“It’s certainly a different kind of learning experience,” Morelock says. “It’s not for every student, and it’s not as easy as it sounds. It requires a lot of dedicated time, a lot of time reading, a lot of time on the instructional videos, a lot of time communicating back and forth (with a teacher).

“On the other hand, it’s a nice option for some students who want to catch up, want to take some more courses or earn credit for some other requirements,” Morelock says, “or for students who may be medically fragile.”

Riverdale School District Superintendent Terry Brandon says the question is not whether online schools are a better option than traditional schools. “They just meet different needs for kids,” he says. “Kids can customize their education.”

Online schools allow students to set their own schedule, Brandon says, and to work at their own pace, watching and re-watching lessons before finishing out a semester or term. Brandon says he’s also heard parents of bullied children say that virtual schools offer a way to make sure “their kids are safe,” a feeling Jamie Munt’s father knows all too well.

The online classroom

How do instructors teach when they aren’t in the same room as students? Each online virtual public school in Oregon employs similar techniques.

At Estacada Web Academy, Principal Sean Gallagher says lessons are streamed live and recorded for students to view later. Students also can access lesson transcripts. While the teacher is speaking, students can submit questions via an Internet forum.

Students who need one-on-one support can set up a video conference with an instructor during the teacher’s office hours.

Students also take monthly field trips and can take part in face-to-face enrichment classes, such as art, music and physical education.

“Our teachers are not just educators,” says Gallagher. “They also are mentors and advisers to our students.”

Estacada Web Academy teacher Jonathan Klos said students and their families have greater accountability for maintaining their own schedules, and that freedom works well for many kids. The school will help students who are struggling, but some may come to decide online learning isn’t for them, and that’s OK, Klos said.

“More and more, I feel like we provide a lot of good opportunities for students that don’t necessarily fit in mainstream education,” Klos said, “and more and more I think you’re going to see the growth of different options of schools, not just online but different types of schools for different students. Different students have different needs.”

Oregon Connections Academy also has lessons available for students to watch.

“The nice thing for me is that I can review all the lessons,” Jamie Munt says. Her teachers also call regularly, Jamie says — once every one or two weeks — and she emails them when she needs help. The school also offers field trips and other activities, she says.

“The lessons are top quality,” says Jamie’s father, Steve Munt, “and I get to review them.”

Jason Webber, a master teacher for kindergarten through second grade at Oregon Connections Academy, streams his classes from home and says he tries to inject fun into his lessons to keep kids engaged. He’s introduced his cat and pointed to a papier-màché map he made in fifth grade to teach geography. He’s also made cookies with a camera strapped to his head, smiling into his laptop camera to show the kids how silly he looks while teaching them about measurements and kitchen safety.

Webber’s got a Waldo doll from his childhood that he shifts about in the background, asking kids if they can spot him. He posts a picture of his daughter in a corner of the screen; when the kids let him know that they can see her, he knows he’s got their attention.

Webber will call the kids every couple of weeks to have 10- to 20-minute conversations, something he didn’t have when he worked in a traditional school.

“I truly can’t remember a time where I had 20 minutes of basically uninterrupted time with a student or family in a brick-and-mortar school,” Webber says. “Maybe during parent-teacher conferences, but they were few and far between, not every couple weeks.”

The social aspect

Some educators worry that online schools don’t provide enough of an opportunity for students to socialize outside of the classroom. But students enrolled in virtual schools and their parents say attending public school is stressful socially, and that it’s not the only way for a child to mingle with peers.

Like Steve Munt, West Linn resident Kelly Davis oversees the education of her daughter, Aubrienne, and allows her some flexibility. Aubrienne, an eighth-grader at Oregon Connections Academy, says she loves setting her own schedule. She usually sleeps in, starts school at 9:30 a.m. and then works later in the day than students at a traditional junior high.

Aubrienne says she doesn’t miss the “drama of all the teenagers being in one place” at school and prefers learning at home, where perks include taking her faithful Papillon, Rocky, for walks as part of her PE class.

In online school, “you don’t have to worry about being judged or that the teachers aren’t there to help you,” she says, “because the teachers will always be there to help.”

In addition to teachers, each student has a learning coach — a role played by Aubrienne’s mom and Jamie’s dad — who is there by their side if they need them. That takes commitment on the parent’s part, but it allows a student to have another person in the house to support them — and to chat with on breaks.

Aubrienne also has her own social group, including kids her age who she can spend time with. Often, she lunches with friends she made before she left Rosemont Ridge Middle School.

“She’s still able to stay in contact with them that way,” Kelly Davis says.

Like Jamie, Aubrienne may return to a traditional educational setting when she’s done with middle school. But she might not go to her neighborhood school.

“Instead of going to West Linn High, we’re thinking of putting me in Wilsonville High, so I wouldn’t be with the people I was with before in middle school and grade school,” Aubrienne says. “So I would kind of have a fresh start.”

The data

Attending an online school may be the right choice for Aubrienne and Jamie. But in general, do online schools work for kids? There have been a few studies on online K-12 learning, with mixed results.

One study by the U.S. Department of Education looked at the implementation and impact between 2003 and 2006 of West Virginia’s Virtual School Spanish program. The study, “Understanding the Implications of Online Learning for Educational Productivity,” was published in 2012. It concluded that “on the Spanish proficiency assessment, students in virtual classes perform as well as their face-to-face peers on the multiple-choice assessment, and lower than their face-to-face peers in oral fluency and, to a lesser degree, writing.”

A 2007 study referenced in the report indicated that students who used Web-based instruction were able to produce lengthier and better writing samples. But instruction combining online and face-to-face elements was better for kids than either plain face-to-face instruction or online instruction, the study found.

The 2012 report also says that, besides a few studies, there is little research on the topic of online K-12 education. Many sources therefore rely on general higher-education research, even though the age and maturity of the student body studied differs in each.

An October 2013 Gallup poll indicated that, when it comes to online higher education, Americans see it as a positive option, but they think it provides less-rigorous testing and grading, and less-qualified instructors.

In Oregon, of course, students are taught the same Common Core curriculum as their counterparts in traditional schools. And at Oregon Connections Academy, 12 of the 15 teachers listed on its website received their master’s degrees; the rest have bachelor’s degrees.

For Kelly Davis, the key is that Aubrienne’s teacher has given good feedback and support.

“What we’ve found, and the reason we continue to stay with it, is that (Aubrienne) gets more individualized attention from her teacher,” Kelly Davis says. “The teacher is there at all times. If she has a question, if she has a concern, she just emails him.

“It is,” she says, “way beyond what I thought it was going to be.”

Dollars and cents: The financial impact of online schools

Although most of the debate surrounding online schools centers on the quality of education, charter schools do receive state funding. That makes them a source of revenue for some school districts, and a source of financial competition for others.

Public online charter schools are eligible for state funding based on weighted average daily membership (ADMw), a formula that begins with the total number of students in attendance and then adds points for some students, such as those enrolled in special education. The more points there are, the more funding — up to a point.

The state pays an amount in the thousands per student that varies by school district. In Lake Oswego, for example, the school district received $6,572 per ADMw in 2013-14. In the West Linn-Wilsonville School District, it was $6,562.

Each charter school is sponsored by a traditional school district, which is required to pass along at least 80 percent of its per-student funds for grades K-8 and 95 percent of the per-student funds for grades 9-12. The amount of per-student funding distributed to a charter school may vary depending on the agreement in place between the district and the online charter school. Oregon Connections Academy is sponsored by the Scio School District; in 2013-14, it received $3,971 per ADMw.

But there’s another wrinkle.

Online charter schools can draw students from across the state. So even though Oregon Connections Academy is technically in the Scio School District, students from Lake Oswego, West Linn-Wilsonville and other school districts can attend. That means money that would have stayed close to home could now be sent to other parts of the state.

There are controls in place to limit the financial impact. For example, 50 percent or more of the students who attend a public charter school must reside in the school district in which the public charter school is located. And if more than 3 percent of the students who live in a school district are enrolled in virtual public charter schools that are not sponsored by that school district, those students must receive permission from their home district before enrolling.

But the fact remains that, even in the best of economic climates, traditional school districts could see a drop in state funding if online schools continue to grow.

Learn more

Several schools and programs offer full-time online instruction in Oregon:

Source: Oregon Department of Education website

By Jillian Daley
503-636-1281, ext. 109
email: jdaley@lakeoswegoreview.com
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