Virtual Education School Choices for Michigan Students Increasing
Online alternatives geared at kids of all ages are growing, from web-only classes to brick-and-mortar options to for-profit charters. What's this change look like, and is it right for every child?
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A big task
Jeff Williams, CEO of Public Sector Consultants in Lansing, analyzes an array of education policies across the state. When it comes to online education, he feels schools can't move quickly enough.
"It's ironic. On one hand, online education is moving incredibly fast – at the speed of technology," Williams says. "On the other hand, right now in Michigan, there are about 1.5 million kids in the K-12 system. Our education system moves very slowly – not because it isn't smart, but because today, it needs to educate 1.5 million students, serve 1.5 million lunches, and get 1.5 million kids safely home from school."
Superintendents eager to usher in online options may find it hard to predict what technology to purchase, how many teachers to hire, how to configure computer labs and which online curriculum is best.
Williams cites concerns over quality, access and funding for online education. While he is optimistic that cyber schools will increase opportunities for every Michigan student, he says it won't happen overnight.
"To get from where we are today to a really individualized approach to education, every day you have to have that discussion 1.5 million times," Williams says.
Clicking with kids
Full-time online homeschoolers like my niece Ella will likely always represent a small minority of Michigan students, experts agree, but virtually every student will experience online education to some extent.
Student Grace Ferguson represents the more common blended learning scenario.
Ferguson, 18, graduated from Pinckney High School one semester early thanks to two online classes she took through Northwestern University: journalism and the mathematics of baseball.
According to Michigan law, all high school students may take up to two online classes each semester. "I know quite a few students who are taking online classes. It's gotten a lot more popular since my freshman year," Ferguson says. "It opens up your education to so many things, and you're not limited to what the school can offer."
But Ferguson, who has a 4.0 GPA and describes herself as a self-starter, says the digital format isn't for everyone. "I think online learning is good for the people who are able to pace themselves without the guidance," she says. "You definitely miss out on the social aspect, and that's important, especially in high school. You get through the class a little bit faster, but you miss out on the discussion."
Brighton Area Schools has offered online classes for years through Michigan Virtual University, but just rolled out its own Brighton Virtual Academy, allowing high school students to take up to 100 percent of their courses online.
"I think the key to it is to offer a variety of options, because not all kids are the same," says Superintendent Greg Gray. "Some kids do very well with a six-period workload, interacting, participating in extracurricular activities, getting up early and getting to school. For others, for a variety of reasons, that doesn't work for them.
"We still have to make sure they get the quality education Brighton is known for. It might just look different than what some people remember as traditional education."
Jamey Fitzpatrick, president and CEO of Michigan Virtual School, which provides online classes and career development tools to some 500 schools across the state, says students turn to online learning to make up classes they might have failed, earn credits over the summer or find access to subjects their schools may not have.
"When we started the virtual school in 2000, surveys showed 45 percent of Michigan high schools didn't offer AP courses. That same year, we launched 17 AP courses. There was a huge equity element that online education could offer," Fitzpatrick says.
Today, Mandarin Chinese is popular. The class is a blend of "real time" and "any time" experiences. Most lessons can be downloaded on demand, but students are required to log in for group study sessions, in which they interact with a teacher and each other online.
Michigan Virtual Schools also serves as a center for learning research and innovation.
Fitzpatrick is currently working on guidelines for evaluating cyber schools and online course providers, as well as how to prepare teachers for the brave new world.
"Most teacher prep programs are not producing teachers for tomorrow who are proficient teaching in an online environment," Fitzpatrick says. "The governor and legislature have asked us to come up with a recommendation as to what an endorsement might look like (for) online and blended learning."
Fitzpatrick expects to present his findings to Gov. Snyder and the state Board of Education later this year. "The state has made a decision they want to embrace online learning, but there's a healthy concern for using tax dollars effectively," he says.
Dr. Vickie Markavitch, superintendent of Oakland Schools, believes traditional public schools – not private companies – are best positioned to provide online options.
Markavitch heads up VLAC, the first multi-county collaborative with the state's permission to provide K-8 online schools. VLAC employs local teachers with a student-to-teacher ratio of 1-to-40. Students are required to take the Michigan Educational Assessment Program test and are carefully monitored for attendance and achievement. Operating the schools locally means more control over quality, curriculum, cost and valuable data about the effectiveness of online learning.
"That's the rub. When a highly adaptive technology meets a massive, ingrained system, both sides will be frustrated," Williams says.
"If we're going to do it, let's do it with the highest quality we can find and with the most transparency. Our budget is open to the world," Markavitch says. A key component of the VLAC program is that tax dollars stay local.
Students enroll through their home district, which pays Oakland ISD up to $6,100 per pupil and keeps the rest. In turn, students stay closely aligned with their neighborhood district and are welcome to participate in activities and electives at their home school.
After evaluating Michigan's options for online elementary education, my sister-in-law was drawn to VLAC because of its real-world ties.
Von Buskirk looked into for-profit providers but liked VLAC's option for face-to-face interaction. She also liked the open-door policy at Lakewood Elementary. Ella stuck with Brownies, and mom serves as leader of the troop. She is comforted by the fact that there's a place for Ella if homeschooling doesn't work out.
"I went with the program knowing that if I failed, there would still be an open option to send her back to school," she says. But for now, she says, they're sticking with online ed.
"It's the best decision I've ever made as a mom," she says.