Virtual Schools, Online Education in Arizona: Is It Right For Your Student?

As adults we know that not everyone is suited for a  9 to 5 job. Whether it is work style or other responsibilities such as parenting, social, and community commitments, one size fits all does not fit all.

But what about kids? What if they don’t fit into the traditional school model? What if they want to progress more quickly through a subject or need more time?  What if they can’t focus due to social challenges or even attend a bricks and mortar classroom due to severe allergies or other medical concerns? Increasingly, families are turning to technology for a solution.

In Arizona, students from across the state may enroll in a full-time virtual public school – tuition free. This innovative school option combines public school, distance learning, and elements of schooling at home – and its popularity is gaining, not just in Arizona, but nationwide.

In fact, according to new research by Evergreen Education Group, as of late 2011, 30 states now have full-time, multi-district virtual schools that enrolled an estimated 250,000 students in the 2010-2011 academic year, a 25 percent increase over the previous year.  Yet despite this growth, many parents don’t fully understand virtual school and how it works.

First, parents often confuse virtual schools with homeschooling. The two are very different.

Virtual schools deliver highly accountable education to students in the comfort of home. State-certified teachers deliver a rigorous curriculum that correlates to state standards and students participate in state testing. Most virtual schools provide everything a student needs for school, including curriculum materials and loaned texts and computers.

Parents also worry virtual school students sit in front of a computer all day; they don’t. The computer is a tool for teachers and parents to manage and track assignments, communicate (along with the phone) and deliver interactive curricular materials, but it is not the only tool that students use. Students complete many assignments “unplugged” and spend time reading textbooks, using workbooks, reading library books and doing hands-on experiments — just like a traditional school.

Also, just as there are in traditional schools, students in the virtual school setting learn under the guidance of a state-certified teacher. Assisting the student in day-to-day activities is an adult Learning Coach, who is typically a parent, but may be another family member or adult caregiver. The teacher works directly with both the student and Learning Coach to develop an individual learning plan, provide instruction and evaluate assignments.

And despite a common misconception, virtual school students socialize. Like all kids, they choose to IM, text or talk to one another on the phone, but good virtual schools also host a number of educational field trips each month so students can get together as a group and engage in real-world learning. Many of the students find that the flexibility of virtual education makes it possible to be involved in activities, such as sports and volunteering.

In fact, some families who choose virtual schooling so their child can pursue their dreams, whether that be the Olympics, professional golf or even acting.

As a principal, I know every parent wants his/her child to receive the best education possible.

Parents need to do their homework to pick a high quality virtual school that’s the best fit for their child. Look for a school with a track record of delivering student academic achievement and high levels of parent and student satisfaction. Other quality benchmarks include: accreditation from AdvancED; full-time, certified and highly qualified teachers; state-of-the-art technology resources; and community activities like clubs and field trips for students.

Ultimately, you must decide what type of schooling is right for your child.

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