Elk Grove Unified to open a virtual school

Kristin Allen, a junior at Valley High, studies Algebra II in a computer lab. This fall, the Elk Grove school district will have a virtual school up and running: Students will receive their online course work at home.

This August a few hundred students in the Elk Grove Unified School District will have their school year delivered to their doorstep in a giant UPS box.

The K-12 students will be part of the district’s first-ever virtual school.

The box will contain grade-specific supplies – books, globes, maps – that students will need to finish a year of school from home.

Virtual schooling is gaining traction among California school districts looking for ways to increase revenue and decrease spending.

The cyber school could help the district bring back students who have left to attend charter or private schools, and could draw students from other districts, said Anne Zeman, director of curriculum and professional learning for the district. And with those additional students will come additional state funding.

Elk Grove will pay K12, the company that provides the instruction plans and materials, 85 to 90 percent of the $5,219 the district receives from the state for each student, Zeman said.

She said the district may not make any money on the endeavor, but she’s certain it won’t cost any more than it brings in. “We can’t afford to embark on a program that is a new expense,” she said.

Unlike continuation programs or some charter schools that cater to students who struggle with a traditional classroom environment, Zeman said, the Elk Grove virtual school will be for students of all academic levels.

It will be “no piece of cake” academically, she said. The materials provided by K12 for the program have been reviewed by staff to ensure they are on par with the curriculum taught at district schools.

Students in the virtual program will learn most of their lessons on a computer at home. They’ll go to a real campus for tests and to meet from time to time with a teacher.

Sacramento City Unified leaders have selected a task force to study the possibility of a virtual school in that district, said Mary Shelton, acting chief academic officer.

“We’re looking at a model that pulls in students from outside our district,” she said. “That’s how you increase your ADA (average daily attendance).”

Sacramento City and Elk Grove officials say money isn’t the only reason they are pursuing online programs.

“Our primary goal is to maintain the reputation and integrity of our district by providing the best education possible for our students,” Zeman said. “We’re looking for parents to take another look.”

Most local districts still are just dipping their toes into the virtual education pool, blending online learning with class time.

In the Twin Rivers Unified School District, high school students can take a biology class that combines lessons from teachers with online labs and collaboration with peers, said Sarah DiRuscio, director of Educational Technology-Secondary Education.

The Folsom Cordova Unified School District offers online courses in English 3 for high school students and geometry for middle and high school students. The students meet online to discuss class work and are proctored on tests.

Many districts offer online courses for students trying to make up classes to graduate. These programs have become more popular lately, as school districts have shuttered summer schools and after-school programs.

Elk Grove Unified started offering supplemental online classes for credit-deficient juniors and seniors this year.

Junior Kristin Allen was in the computer lab Thursday at Valley High School taking an online Algebra II class after school. She had received a D in the class previously. She said she was trying to stay on track so she can apply to universities this spring.

But is online learning a good alternative?

“It depends,” said Cynthia Carter Ching, an associate professor with the School of Education at UC Davis.

“Students who are self-motivated do fine in these types of environments, but those who need more help are not going to get that sort of social reinforcement support structure,” she said.

She said parents of virtual students need to be involved and should monitor them to make sure they aren’t goofing off online.

“I think that, as a parent, before you make a decision about online school, you have to know your child and know what you are capable of,” Ching said.

She also said students need to interact with teachers and peers.

“You don’t want to have a situation where you have a third-grader uploading and downloading assignments with very little interaction with teachers and peers,” Ching said.

She recommends that school districts go with online schools that let students interact with one another online, instead of working in solitude.

Regardless of the method, online learning is appealing to more and more students. Sacramento City’s Shelton attributes the increased popularity to students’ familiarity with technology.

“I think it’s the shape of things to come as we see more and more college courses online,” Shelton said. “I think it’s finally moving down to the secondary level. It is something our students are comfortable with and demand.”