Salem Statesman Journal
October 18, 2015
Around third grade, South Salem teenager Chloe Bumanlag went to school with a friend one day at Pringle Elementary, just to see what it was like.
It was fine, but not really for her.
Today, she is an eager-to-learn eighth-grader and an honor student, just like her siblings, sixth-grader Tirzah and fourth-grader Josiah. None of them go to school in the morning like most kids – at least not in the traditional way.
For the Bumanlags, school is home and home is school. But they are not home-schooled, per se. They share a “classroom,” or learning area, at home and are schooled through Mill City-based Oregon Connections Academy, or ORCA, the largest of 13 K-12 online or virtual schools listed with the Oregon Department of Education.
Those virtual schools mirror a national trend; they are predominantly growing in their numbers and appealing to students and parents alike for a variety of reasons.
“What I really like about the academy is it’s different from public school,” said Chloe, whose mom, Heidi Bumanlag, describes her as somewhat independent.
“My friends are always complaining about their homework.They are complaining about how they have to get up early, then go to school for hours, and then they have hours and hours of homework. We get it done while we do our school work,” Chloe said about homework.
Chloe’s preferences provide some insight to the trends, at least from a student’s point of view.
Gauging virtual-education growth trends can be an elusive task, especially since the strictly online students, such as the Bumanlags, are but one piece of the measure. Many students attend school in the traditional face-to-face setting but also enroll in online courses, a mixed schedule described as blending.
“In many states, courses are not listed as being online or face-to-face on a student’s transcript, so it is a very hard number to collect,” said Allison Powell, vice president of state and district services/new learning models for International Association for K-12 Online Learning.
“Back in 2013, it was estimated that about 5 million students were enrolled in an online course. This is a student taking one or more courses in addition to their school day, not being enrolled in full-time online schools.
“Last year, roughly 300,000 students were enrolled in full-time schools,” she added. “This number is easier to calculate and keep track of as they are schools rather than supplemental online programs.”
John Watson, founder of Evergreen Education Group, which provides K-12 digital learning market, policy research and advisory services, has seen a steady increase in the strictly online enrollment nationwide.
“We have tracked the number of students in statewide fully online schools dating back to the 2008-09 school year. That year we estimated 175,000 students in those schools,” Watson said. “For school year 2013-14, we estimated 316,000 students.”
Within Oregon, ORCA’s numbers reflect a microcosm of that trend: The academy had 650 students its inaugural year, 2005, and grew incrementally the next several years, adding high school courses in 2008. The Oregon Department of Education lists ORCA’s official enrollment last year at 3,558, up from 3,405 the previous year.
Broader curriculum possibilities have come with that growth.
“The number of courses continues to increase, but most core courses and many electives have been available for 10 years or more,” Watson said. “Courses continue to evolve and improve, and there are more and better options now than in years past, but students were able to take a full load of courses online since the early 2000s, if not before.”
Blending has become, perhaps, the fastest-growing phenomenon within the virtual trend.
“There are countless combinations of online and face-to-face instruction,” Watson said. “Generally speaking, much of the online activity in elementary schools tends to be skills software in math and ELA (English language arts), while in high school there are more full courses that are online.”
Discussions about blending and online enrollment in general elicit a recurring word: flexibility.
“There are a number of reasons why our virtual public school is growing in popularity in Oregon. Many families live in rural parts of the state and want a broader selection of classes for their children. Some students have special medical conditions. And others need a flexible schedule because their kids are star athletes or actors,” ORCA Executive Director Allison Galvin said.
“Flexibility is key for a lot of families who switch to virtual learning,” said Brittany Zahler, an ORCA fifth-grade teacher from Stayton. “In today’s fast-paced world, our online school gives families the ability to schedule schoolwork around other commitments and passions — be it traveling, music lessons, or volunteering in the community. Increased flexibility is a common theme I hear from new families enrolling their students in our school.”
Heidi Bumanlag and her husband, Randy, are products of traditional education. She’s a 1991 graduate of Central High School in Independence; he's a 1988 graduate of Sprague High School in Salem. But before Chloe began school, they began looking at flexible options.
Heidi acknowledged that the Bumanlags' situation is better suited than many because she's a stay-at-home mom: “This is my job.”
She also emphasized that it’s vital for a parent to be on top of the studies along with the kids, but the reward is sharing their “aha moment” when the lessons formulate into clear understanding of a topic or subject.
“It’s just nice that there is an option now,” Heidi said. It's a matter of finding what works best for the family, she said.
Chloe seems to have a pretty good idea of that.
“I’m just not a morning person,” she said. “One of my friends has to get up and 5 a.m. We can get up and work at our own pace. Take it slower if we had a rough day before. Or get busy that next day, get caught up and get all the school work done.
“There’s just more flexibility.”