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Parents find flexibility in virtual schools

Summit Daily/Brad Odekirk
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SUMMIT COVE – Nine-year-old Caroline Wilson sits in front of a computer’s flat-screen monitor next to her bed and clicks through the PowerPoint presentation about leopards she created for her science class. Photographs she downloaded from the Internet are captioned in large print with explanatory details about the big cats.This is no ordinary science class, though. Caroline and her two brothers, Creed and Cord, are students at Colorado Virtual Academy, an online statewide charter school affiliated with the Adams 12 Five Star School District in the Front Range. In operation since 2001, the virtual academy, with headquarters in Northglenn, claims an enrollment of nearly 2,500 students in kindergarten through ninth grade from all areas of the state.”The majority of our students come from the Colorado Springs and Denver area,” said Melyssa Dominguez, the virtual academy’s director of school community. But the school also has students from towns as far away as Cortez and Craig, she added.’We’ll send them feathers’Summit Cove resident Tina Wilson first heard about the virtual academy last year, when her three older children were all enrolled in public school. The potential flexibility of the online program immediately attracted her.

“Most people that live up here work on the weekends,” she said. “It’s hard to have family time when the kids are in school Monday through Friday.”After talking with the virtual academy’s administrators and teachers, Wilson and her husband, Scott, decided to transfer their children to the online charter school last fall. So far, she has only praise for the program.”I think it’s the most amazing thing ever,” she said. “I’m very impressed with what I see.”Wilson, a former elementary school teacher, spends several hours each day working with her children on the virtual academy’s curriculum. Unlike traditional home schooling, the lessons are all spelled out according to grade level, she said. “I don’t have to sit down and think about what I’m going to teach.” She spends about an hour every Sunday evening organizing the upcoming week’s lessons, she says. When a child enrolls in the virtual academy, the school sends the family a computer and textbooks, among other supplies. “If they need feathers to do an art project, we’ll send them feathers,” Dominguez said.

No typical studentBecause the virtual academy is a public school chartered by the Adams 12 District, it’s subject to the same regulations as “brick and mortar” schools. “They monitor attendance, academic records and test scores,” Wilson said. The program is designed to run from August through May, and, like any public school, the instruction and materials are all free.Wilson said her kids still spend plenty of time with friends. “We do everything a public school student does,” she said. “Girl Scouts, soccer, baseball. We know all the neighbors on the street. Nothing has changed in that way at all.”In addition to scheduling flexibility, Wilson said the ability to move at each child’s pace is a real advantage in her family. “I know public school teachers do a great job,” she said. “They do the best they can, but it’s hard in a classroom of 20 kids. It’s easy to miss something.”The virtual academy students take the same standardized tests as other students Caroline is now half way through her third-grade CSAP testing. But Dominguez is reluctant to characterize the typical the virtual academy student.”We have so many different kinds of kids, I wouldn’t want to put them in a box,” she said.



Evolution and creationismOnline schools have been criticized in Colorado for relatively high dropout rates and low student performance on standardized tests. Because they are funded by taxpayers’ dollars, some observers have called into question their efficacy. The Colorado Department of Education gives the virtual academy an “average” rating in its school accountability report for 2004-2005, but other state cyber-schools are struggling.The school’s curriculum, designed by K12, Inc., a Virginia-based company with ties to charter schools throughout the nation, is on the conservative side, Wilson said.”In history, it does take more of a conservative approach, but I like that,” she said. “In science, it teaches both evolution and creationism. I want them to learn both. If there’s something I disagree with, I tell the kids I disagree with it.”The virtual academy has added more grades every year since its inception. Next year, the school will add 10th grade. Eventually, students who complete 12th grade in the program will receive high school diplomas from the Adams 12 school district.Wilson isn’t sure how long her children will stay in “virtual” school. “We’ll take it year by year,” she said. “Right now we’re really happy with it.”Vail Daily, Vail, Colorado


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