School For Kids Logs In
Virtual academy is state's first for elementary students.
by Nanette Asimov, San Francisco Chronicle, August
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This year in first grade, he'll explore the great religions.
He'll read music in second grade, study astronomy in third and
manipulate millions in fourth. By fifth grade, he'll be
Thrilled with their son's education, Nathan's parents also like
his teacher -- a desktop computer.
Nathan, 6, studies at the California Virtual Academy, the
state's first cyber elementary school.
"What I liked most was, I didn't have to pay -- and I didn't
have to do lesson planning or grading. The school does it for
you and saves hours of work, " said Debbie Dueck, who
homeschools her three older sons through a Christian program.
One son, 12-year-old Stephen, will join Nathan in cyber class
this fall, as grades 6 and 7 have been added.
What makes e-school possible are improved technology and a new
taste among entrepreneurs for tapping into the riches that pay
for American public schools.
The speculator in this case is William Bennett, former U.S.
education secretary under Ronald Reagan and founder of K12 Inc.,
a private Virginia company that has opened cyber charter schools
in 11 states since 1999.
Bennett's virtual approach has found favor among many
conservatives and Christian homeschoolers like the Duecks. As
author of the morally prescriptive "Book of Virtues," Bennett
has earned their trust, despite also earning the nickname
"Bookie of Virtues" after admitting recently to years of
Now Bennett is taking another gamble: that his budding empire of
e-schools will transform American education and deal him a
profit along the way.
That's particularly tough in California, where laws for
nonclassroom-based schools demand that half of their public
money go to teacher salaries -- not a huge need when your
instructor has hardware for brains.
K12 Inc. sells its online curriculum to the cyber schools and
takes a fee of roughly 20 percent. The company performs
administrative duties and supplies technology.
The program is aimed at success, requiring students to pass
online exams before proceeding, and has just three report card
grades: "M" for "mastered," "C" for "completed sufficiently to
advance," and "I" for "incomplete."
But the idea of software-as-public-elementary-teacher is not
without its critics.
"You could go to the supermarket and buy a CD with math
programs," said Gary Miron, a charter school researcher from
Western Michigan University. "You do an activity and get
Jill Wynns of the San Francisco school board, a critic of
for-profit charters, said a computerized curriculum is anathema
to public education. In school, "kids are graded on
participation. It's about discussion, listening, asking
questions -- playing well with others."
Like any startup, the virtual academy has run into trouble --
two of its five charter schools have already closed, and K12 is
looking for districts to handle them.
But the company says the nearly 100 cyber students at those
schools, including many Bay Area kids such as Nathan and Stephen
Dueck, can continue using its program through other charters or
for free from K12 this semester. K12 already had to pay some
$300,000 for the education of 50 students at one of the schools
when a San Joaquin County district blocked funding.
Despite the cyber school's rough start, overall enrollment is up
to 933 from 751 last year, and test scores are higher than the
state average, said Jim Konantz, a former assistant
superintendent in Los Angeles who is now head of school at the
California Virtual Academy.
Of the 426 second- to fifth-grade cyber students tested, 46
percent ranked proficient or above on the language arts section
of the rigorous California Standards Test. In math, 42 percent
scored as well.
That was better than the state average of 35 percent proficient
in each subject. Yet virtual school is no panacea: 228 students
also ranked "below basic" or "far below basic."
The California Virtual Academy (CAVA) begins its second year
with three charters that take students from Tuolumne, Kern and
San Diego counties and the surrounding areas. Nearly 70 CAVA
students also get the cyber school through a separate charter in
ABSORBING AND LEARNING
Parents praise what Bennett calls "character education," strong
doses of patriotism, heroism and old-fashioned cautionary tales
infused into the online curriculum. To Bennett and the cyber
families, the computer is an ideal feeding tube for
"Nathan is reading!" said Debbie Dueck, a cosmetics saleswoman
who works from home. "We've been comparing notes with a friend
whose daughter goes to kindergarten in Brisbane. Her class is
still on letter sounds."
Although Nathan can sound out letters and recognize some
sentences, at 6, he is not adept at using the computer. So Dueck
positions herself between them.
"Give Nathan the 10 frame and 11 counters," the computer tells
Dueck in a bold, clear font. Dueck reaches into a box and pulls
out colored disks and a board marked with 10 squares. She tells
Nathan to count out 11 discs.
"Check to see whether Nathan has placed 10 counters on the
ten-frame and one counter outside the ten-frame," the computer
tells Dueck. He had. But something is wrong.
"Mom, there's one extra!"
"Good!" says Dueck. "Can you tell how many there are?"
Whew. The math materials were among a boatload of freebies that
arrived at the Duecks' home last year: computer, printer, CDs,
art supplies, workbooks and more. K12 bought them with the
nearly $5,000 per pupil that the cyber school gets from the
state. The company also pays $18.95 per month toward Internet
LESS STRESS FOR TEACHERS
"Students are learning much more than they would have learned in
the classroom," said Nancy Walker, who was among 45 teachers
that the California Virtual Academy employed last year to meet
monthly with families and comply with state law. "In class, they
would have to sit through the lesson even if they knew it. Here,
they don't waste time on concepts they know."
Being a cyber teacher carries less stress than the usual
classroom job, Walker said, and others agree. About 250 teachers
applied for just two openings this year, said Rebecca Houser,
the academy's assistant head of school.
Yet Walker, who was with a cyber charter that closed and now
works at the academy's Oakland headquarters, said the 24
families she met in libraries, parks or coffee bars kept her
"Say a student is having trouble understanding multiplication.
That's where I get to teach the parent all my teacher tricks."
Some students need little help. "I had a couple of (brothers)
who were absolute wizards," Walker said. "The boy in third grade
started last September and finished all the material in December
and moved on to fourth grade. Now, he and his brother are both
starting fifth grade. School would be boring, and they know it."
For others, such as three shy sisters, motivation is hard -- and
cyber learning may be a poor choice. "I'm really pushing for
them to go back to school." Walker said. "It just seems like
they need to get out of the house."
Despite holding a full credential and working full time, Walker
is paid $30, 000 with no retirement benefits -- less than
regular teachers or even what she earned as a beginner.
Superintendent William Lebo of the Lammersville district in San
Joaquin County was appalled at the academy's anti-union position
and refused to sponsor the cyber charter last year.
But that didn't stop K12. The company went ahead and advertised
a Lammersville virtual academy and said the district was
sponsoring it. K12 hired teachers and recruited students, many
from the Bay Area. In the end, though, K12 wound up with no
state funds for those students and had to pay for them all.
Despite its troubles, California's new virtual school has the
approval of Stanford Professor Mike Kirst, a leading voice in
"There are a lot of people out there looking for high-quality
curriculum that gives them a lesson for every day," said Kirst,
a paid adviser to K12. Kirst also envisions a cyber-classroom
blend. "California schools are so weak in art and music -- but
you can do a lot with showing art and hearing music on the
computer," he said.
Adam Miles of Clayton has a simpler reason for sending
10-year-old Mikaelyn to cyber class, not regular school: "boys."
"We just felt that we could do a better job of controlling her
environment, " Miles said.
So he enrolled her in the Lammersville virtual academy last
year, and intended to re-enroll her for fifth grade. Two weeks
ago, he got word that it had closed.
"Maybe I'm missing something here," Miles said, "but I don't
That's because, unlike a school of brick and mortar, cyber
lessons are transferable. Mikaelyn will simply study K12's
fifth-grade curriculum through another charter this year.
"The school is dynamic," Miles said. "We haven't looked back."
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