Tuesday, May 1, 2012
Are virtual schools the way of the future?
Fairfax, VA thinks so!
Fairfax County considers creating virtual high school
By Emma Brown and Michael Alison Chandler, Published: April 12 Article Link
Fairfax County schools could become the first in the Washington region to create a virtual public high school
that would allow students to take all their classes from a computer at home.
No sports teams. No pep rallies. No lockers, no hall passes. Instead, assignments delivered on-screen and after-
school clubs that meet online.
It’s a reimagination of the American high school experience. And it’s a nod to the power of the school choice
movement, which has given rise to the widespread expectation that parents should have a menu of options to
customize their children’s education.
Several School Board members, who will hear a formal proposal for the online school at a meeting Monday,
said they are excited by the prospect.
“It’s certainly something we need to be looking into . . . taking advantage of the new media and the new world,”
said School Board member Sandy Evans (Mason).
Still, the idea of a virtual school is so new in Fairfax that there are many unanswered questions — including
how much it would cost, how many teachers would be needed and how many students would enroll full time in
a school where they would rarely see classmates in the flesh.
Superintendent Jack D. Dale said he doesn’t think many high-schoolers would attend full time, but he’s seen a
growing demand among students who want to take some of their courses virtually.
“It’s hard to do marching band online,” Dale said. “Kids are going to pop in and out of the virtual school.
They’ll just look at it as another method of taking a course, instead of face to face.”
Fairfax officials said that if they don’t create the opportunity, someone else will. A growing number of
organizations — largely for-profit companies — are vying to provide taxpayer-supported virtual-school
programs to Virginia students.
“We can either be behind the curve, on the curve or ahead of the curve,” said Peter Noonan, assistant
superintendent for instructional services, who served on the task force that developed the online-learning
Dozens of younger students have left Fairfax schools for the public Virginia Virtual Academy, the first
statewide full-time virtual program. Open to any Virginia student in kindergarten through eighth grade, it is run
by a Herndon firm — K12 Inc., the nation’s largest operator of public virtual schools — and enrolls nearly 500
If the Fairfax School Board backs the idea, the virtual school would be open to all county high school students.
The task force’s goal is to launch it in September — which Dale called “beyond ambitious” given the number of
details to be resolved.
Under the proposal, teachers would be Fairfax employees working from home offices, corresponding by phone
and e-mail, and occasionally meeting students face to face for orientation sessions and exams. Students and
teachers would gather online for lessons about one-fifth of the time; otherwise, students would be able to design
their schedules, working on assignments at their convenience.
School Board member Megan McLaughlin (Braddock) said she remains skeptical about losing the daily in-
person interactions between teachers and students.
“I really hope my colleagues agree that just because there’s one for-profit online high school in Virginia does
not mean we have to suddenly jump on some bandwagon of the latest education fad,” she said.
Laws lay groundwork
Virginia is a relative newcomer to full-time online learning, but a series of laws pushed by Gov. Robert F.
McDonnell (R) has created the groundwork for expansion.
In 2010, he successfully backed a bill letting school systems to contract with outside vendors to offer virtual
programs. This year, he signed one law establishing licensure rules for online-only teachers and another
mandating that high school students take at least one online course to graduate.
Online learning has expanded in recent years, and now about 250,000 students are enrolled in full-time virtual
schools in 30 states and the District, according to Susan Patrick of the International Association for K-12 Online
Learning, a trade association. Many of the largest operations are statewide charter schools run by for-profit
companies, but some are run by school systems.
Teens who take all their classes online tend to need more flexibility, Patrick said. They include performing
artists, Olympic athletes, homebound or profoundly gifted students, teens on the autism spectrum and victims of
Their numbers are growing steadily, even amid questions about whether full-time virtual schools are effective
for students or a good use of tax dollars.
There is not enough research on virtual schools to say with certainty how elementary and secondary students
perform in full-time online environments compared with traditional classrooms, according to a 2009 analysis by
the U.S. Education Department.
Critics have raised concerns about some virtual schools’ poor performance on measures commonly used to
judge all public schools, such as state test scores and graduation rates.
Fairfax officials say they believe they can do better. Instead of buying courses from a vendor, the task force
recommends that the county develop its own. The county would hire teachers, and instead of class sizes of 50
students or more — as is common in virtual schools — Fairfax proposes to maintain student-teacher ratios that
mirror those in its brick-and-mortar classrooms, which are about 25 to 1.
The county won’t be starting from scratch. Fairfax, like most of the D.C. area’s districts, offers online courses
that students take a la carte to catch up, get ahead or resolve schedule conflicts.
More than 1,000 students during the year — and more than 2,000 in the summer — sign up for online courses.
Starting this fall, high school students will be allowed to opt out of their first- or last-period courses and replace
them with online classes.
Creating a full-time online school is a natural next step, said School Board Chairman Jane K. Strauss
(Dranesville). “I think it’s an excellent idea,” she said.
Fairfax offers about 50 online courses, a number that would need to more than double. And officials still need
to figure out how to provide virtual college and career counseling and special education services.
They also must find a way to put Internet-connected computers into the hands of students who can’t afford
them. Fairfax has been exploring creating a computer lending library or brokering hardware deals with local
businesses — but there is no solution yet.
Lolita Mancheno-Smoak, an activist with The Coalition of The Silence, a Fairfax group that advocates for poor
and minority kids, called the proposal “a proactive and innovative move” to prepare students for a working
world that demands proficiency online. “However,” she said, “it will create an even greater digital divide.”
Grace Chung Becker, president of the Fairfax County Association for the Gifted, called the idea “intriguing.”
But parents will want assurances, she said, that online courses are as rigorous as the face-to-face variety and that
developing a virtual school doesn’t come at the expense of other pressing needs, especially reducing class sizes.
Although many students in this Facebook age would probably agree that education could use a technological
revolution, it’s not clear how many would discard their brick-and-mortar schools. Eye contact with teachers, for
example, has its upsides. Not to mention prom and lunchtime.
“For the most part, students do like going to school — spending time with friends and the social aspect of
school,” said Eugene J. Coleman III, a senior at Mount Vernon High who serves as the School Board’s student
representative. “I think students would not want to miss out on that.”