Cyber Charter Schools, Part 1: Logging On
Well over 12,000 Ohio children are getting a virtual education this year. Sixth-grader Monica Williams is one of them.
Monica Williams: I think my favorite part of doing the school is that you can do it at home, and you're with your family all the time.
Cynthia Williams took Monica out of the Garfield Heights public schools three years ago, when she sensed Monica was losing her enthusiasm for learning. For a year, Cynthia home-schooled Monica. But then she discovered a new educational option that she says added a welcome structure. The Ohio Virtual Academy offered a set curriculum, a teacher, a computer, internet access, and all kinds of materials. She jumped at the chance to enroll Monica. That was last year. This year, they re-enrolled.
Cynthia Williams: So, this is Monica's desk; she uses the computer for about 40% of her studies. The rest is all in the student pages that we read step by step; it's all designed for us.
The Ohio Virtual Academy's guidelines require students to be in regular contact with their certified teachers but parents do the daily teaching. Other virtual schools are structured differently. Josie Drushal is director of TRECA Digital Academy. She says TRECA parents play a supporting role, as in any public school, but are not expected to teach.
Josie Drushal: We strongly feel the teacher is an intimate part of a student's education, even in an online school, needs to be a key player in that student's education.
Teacher/student interaction is just one variable of cyber-schools that makes gauging their success difficult. But all are - or will be - subject to state testing and assessment. New community schools get a two-year grace period before students are tested, so most of Ohio's 41 online charters are too new to have been evaluated. TRECA is one of only six that have been rated. Its recent Report Card lists the school in Academic Watch. Think of it as a D. But, Drushal says it's not a fair reading of what TRECA has accomplished.
Josie Drushal: We have more than doubled our size and students coming they have been not been with us at all - very little time - and yet we're responsible for their test scores previously.
OHVA opened in 2002 with over 1,000 students. Enrollment now is 2,500. The school received its first Report Card this year. It's doing better than any other cyberschool yet evaluated by the Ohio Department of Education. Still, it only earned a rating of Continuous Improvement. Think of that as a C.
Susan Stagner: The curriculum we use was mapped to the Ohio content standards.
Susan Stagner is head of school at the OHVA and proud of her school's approach. But she acknowledges that there is still work to be done.
Susan Stagner: What I don't think we are doing compared to the other schools is infusing test preparation from the beginning of the year. It's something we're going to have to address in partnership with parents.
And that does present a challenge. Stagner says many parents have told her they picked OHVA over traditional public school in part because they're tired of their kids spending so much time on proficiency test preparation. Parents often cite their dissatisfaction with city schools as a primary reason for choosing online education.
Margie Mederer's fifth-grade son Brandon has ADHD. Up until this year, he attended school in the Firelands district, where Margie says she and her husband struggled to get him the support he needed.
Margie Mederer: He had such a hard time. He'd cry a lot when he was in Kindergarten. People would just tell me, "He's a boy. Boys are slower than girls, he'll grow out of it." But he didn't.
For his part, Brandon says he was glad to leave his local school, until he discovered a serious drawback to staying at home.
Brandon Mederer: I forgot all about my friends. I got only one number.
One of the first questions many parents say they're asked when they make the leap into cybereducation is: What about socialization? After Margie ticks off a list of Brandon's regular activities - karate, art classes, Bible Study - John Mederer says he's getting pretty tired of the question.
John Mederer: People are more concerned about him getting interaction with other people than they are him getting an education.
As the Mederer's begin their adventure in online education, they say they're convinced it's the right thing for them. But, clearly, it's not for everyone. For one thing, not everybody can afford to stay home to teach their children. The Mederers worked it out so Margie telecommutes three days a week. On the two days she goes into the office, John stays home to teach Brandon. Cynthia Williams took a night job so she could spend her days teaching Monica. She doesn't get a lot of sleep or see her husband much, but says her daughter's education - and renewed love of learning - are well worth the sacrifice. Cindi Deutschman-Ruiz, 90.3.