BOISE, Idaho -- In this age of Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, America is now seeing an explosion in a new type of virtual education for children.
They are known as virtual academies or just call them online charter schools.
A Typical Online Charter School Day
In Boise, Idaho, reciting the pledge of allegiance is how each school day starts out for the Wonacott family. Inside the house, mom helps teach her kids.
Outside, the backyard swing serves as recess. Dad mans the cafeteria in the kitchen.
Twenty minutes down the road, their Idaho Virtual Academy classmates, the Comstock family, go through their routine, too. Ten-year-old Emily Comstock puts away the dishes as older sister Olivia practices piano. While these situations look like home schooling, they're not. These families are actually going to a public charter school without leaving the house. The computer serves as the center of their education universe.
Thousands Enrolled in Online Classes Across the Country
These online charter schools are becoming more and more popular across America. As a matter of fact, they're really popular in Idaho. More students are enrolled in this state per capita than any other state in the country.
Tens of thousands of children are enrolled in online classrooms across the country. The Obama administration is pushing charter schools by using federal money as an enticement to states that expand the program.
"We built a curriculum that would meet or exceed the most rigorous of any state standards," said Ron Packard, Chief Executive Officer of the K12 online curriculum program. "So the idea for a parent who is doing this is, you don't need to worry about what's being taught, because we've had the nation's experts build the best academic curriculum that would match with the best private schools or the public schools do."
How Online Schools Work
So how does this all work? Well, it starts with a bunch of heavy boxes. If you sign up, you get a bunch of items including a computer, books, lab experiments and even some instruments for music class. It's all free and delivered directly to your door. Since this is a public school, attendance is mandatory. You have to clock in. In addition, public online charter school students still have to meet state requirements and take those pesky standardized exams. Maybe most importantly, the teacher-guided curriculum requires that the students score at least 80 percent on a unit before they can move on.
For these moms in Boise, that's a big advantage over home schooling.
"I like having my kids accountable to someone other than me, because then I'm not the bad guy all the time," Michelle Wonacott said. "I'm not the mean mom and the mean teacher. I can say to them that if you have an issue or a problem talk to your teacher."
Patsy Comstock enrolls her children in IDVA as well and likes this format, because it doesn't put all the pressure on mom alone.
"I didn't really feel prepared for that. I didn't think I could come up with all the material and make sure I was doing a good job," she said.
Comstock's daughter Emily likes to have both mom and a professional teacher.
"It's nice to have someone teaching you other than your mom," she explained. "Because your teaching style might get a little repetitive so it's nice to have a range."
Neat Features for Students and Parents
Going to school through a virtual academy has several neat features. For example, if a student has a question for the teacher, it is no problem at all. They just click the "raise your hand" icon in the chat room.
And where are the teachers? Online of course, from the comfort of their homes. Heather McKenna teaches with the Idaho Virtual Academy and says that her day is filled with conference calls. She has to contact each of the families at least once a month.
McKenna, a mother herself, plays a critical role not just for students, but parents as well.
"I'm the encouragement," she said. "I give them the tips and tricks that I've learned along the way as a parent and as a teacher to help them succeed."
There's no doubt this job requires parental involvement. On any given day, poor mom can be seen running from room to room, but there are far more plusses than minuses for the Wonacott and Comstock families.
For example, as an online public school, there is flexibility in the curriculum. That's very important to devoted Catholics like the Wonacotts.
"Sometimes when we'll hit on a particular history lesson that mentions something to do with Christianity historically sometimes I can expand on that a little bit more and explain how our faith fits into that part of history," Michelle Wonacott explained.
McKenna says choice is one of the best features.
"Yes, you need to do our curriculum," she said. "But for instance, I had a parent call the other day that said, 'Listen, I really don't like that Jack and the Beanstalk book. It's really against what my kids are really wanting. It's too scary and I said great do something else.'"
There are all sorts of reasons parents decide to go this route. The Comstock family put 12-year-old Olivia in the Virtual Academy program because she has severe peanut allergies and a traditional classroom posed challenges. Other families choose this option for other reasons. The range is wide. Maybe a child is getting bullied at school or they may have a learning disability. Sometimes it just simply suits a family's lifestyle. It all comes down to choice and flexibility.
"The school never goes to sleep," Packard said. "It's 24/7 so you can do it anytime. Kids that for example have ADD, they might be doing it a half hour, going to do something else and then coming back to school."
If you think these online Virtual Academies may lead to a lack of social interaction with other children, think again. The experience isn't totally online. Families like the Comstock's and the Wonacott's get together every week with other families from the program.
The moms wouldn't have it any other way.
"We have a little joke in our co-op that it's not the children who need to be socialized. It's the moms because you're in your home all day with your children," Patsy Comstock said.
When parents are home with their children all day, it can sure lead to a lot of time outs and reflective contemplation. Just ask Emily Comstock who explains her version of what happens when a child gets sent to the "Principal's office" at her in home Virtual Academy.
"We might go on the porch and sit down and breathe and kind of get all of our frustrations out," she explained.
Speaking of breathing, take a deep breath -- because online charter schools are set to expand even more in the future.
*Originally published November 17, 2009.