Archive for Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Success continues at state’s first virtual school

Basehor-Linwood blazed trail that’s now followed by more than 30 Kansas school districts

July 23, 2008

As far as virtual schools go, the Basehor-Linwood school district has been ahead of the curve since its beginning in 1998.

Not only was the Basehor virtual school the first program in Kansas, but it was also the third program in all of America, with the first two in Alaska and Florida. Success has continued in the program with enrollment keeping steady at 300 to 350 students a year for the past several years.

"We're grateful for having the opportunity to have had the forethought to do it," said virtual school director Brenda DeGroot about the program's beginning. "We were ahead of the game but now there are lots of people trying to get involved. Everybody is doing it and it's exciting to be able to say we were the first. It's been an honor."

DeGroot said that there are now more than 36 virtual schools in Kansas alone, with more being added each year. The reason behind this increase, she said, is the direction society has headed involving technology.

"I think it's because of the move with technology that everyone is hooked to the Internet," she said. "It's our society and what we do now. Everything is on the Internet."

Ten years ago, DeGroot said the school district had to lease computers to families so they could participate in the program. Now, she said, she speaks with families who tell her on a regular basis their home has multiple computers that the child can use.

While the virtual school program may not be the right fit for every student, DeGroot said there were many students for whom "traditional" schooling wasn't an option. Whether students go to virtual school because of an illness, expulsion from another school or behavioral issues, DeGroot said the Basehor-Linwood virtual school program was giving students an education that they otherwise may have missed out on.

A total of 38 Basehor-Linwood district teachers are involved in the virtual program. In grades kindergarten through sixth, there is one teacher per grade level, and in grades seventh through 12, there is one teacher per course.

Each teacher posts on the Internet the same information they give to students who attend regular classes. The virtual school students can access the information at anytime to complete their assignments. The teachers are also available for followup communications with the students or parents or, even in some cases, for additional tutoring.

The cost of the Basehor virtual school is the same $50 textbook fee that any student who attends school in the district would pay. For those who do need to lease a computer, there is a one-time additional $50 fee. The program is open to any student within the state of Kansas.

But entering into a virtual school should not be a decision that is made lightly, DeGroot cautioned.

"If you think this is easy and you think learning independently is easy, it's not," she said. "You don't want to lose a year by thinking its going to be easy. It's just really important to research and know what you're getting yourself into."

She said the most important step to do in the virtual school process is spend time talking with the person running the program. Speaking with the program's counselors and setting up a plan in the beginning is the key to success.

Also hoping to bring that success to its virtual students is the Tonganoxie school district.

The Tonganoxie virtual school program has been in effect for the past five years, but hasn't quite found the kind of involvement seen in Basehor. With an enrollment of one to three students per year, Superintendent Richard Erickson said he wasn't sure why students haven't shown much interest.

The Tonganoxie program is run by the independent company, Greenbush, which is based out of Girard, Kan. Erickson said that because of the low virtual enrollment figure, the district thought it would be more cost effective to contract out the program rather than try to sustain one on its own.

But those low enrollment numbers haven't deterred the district. Erickson said he thought virtual schools were a great option for certain students. He cited issues such as discipline and family problems as the leading causes of virtual school attendance and said every student should have the opportunity for an education.

"I think it's a preference on the part of the families and students," he said. "I know that obviously the majority of our students are taking the regular education curriculum and prefer a live instructor, but for those who don't, they want an alternative."

Other districts in the area have online learning programs, too. Lawrence's Virtual School was the state's largest in 2007 with about 1,000 students enrolled. The Shawnee Mission School District has an eSchool program. The De Soto School Board in April voted to begin a virtual program in that district.

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