Reader's View, virtual schools: Online education offers viable alternative for students

May 1, 2013 

As the school year winds down, many parents have begun to consider whether their children's educational needs are being met or if they will explore alternatives for the coming school year.

While the traditional brick-and-mortar classroom has been a suitable option for most students, more and more families are exploring alternatives that provide a more personalized learning experience and flexible schedule.

Virtual schooling with INSPIRE, the Idaho Connections Academy allows students to receive a top-notch public education online from the comfort of home. Virtual education is an increasingly popular alternative to the traditional classroom, and by 2015, 17 million prekindergarten through 12th-grade students in the U.S. will get at least some of their education virtually, according to new research from Ambient Insight. More than 4 million of these students will get their entire education virtually, from full-time virtual schools, but still many parents don't fully understand how online learning works.

Virtual public schooling is not homeschooling, and as a matter of fact, the two are quite different. Virtual public schools deliver public education to a student's home at no cost, and combine state-certified teachers and a rigorous curriculum that correlates to state standards. At INSPIRE students learn at home under the guidance of an Idaho state-certified teacher. A learning coach, who is typically a parent, but also could be another family member or responsible adult caregiver, assists the student in day-to-day activities. The teacher works directly with both the student and learning coach to develop an individual learning plan, provide instruction and evaluate assignments.

A common misperception is that virtual school students sit in front of a computer all day. While the computer is a tool for teachers and parents to manage and track assignments, communicate (along with the phone) and deliver interactive curricular materials, it is not the only tool students use. Students complete many assignments "unplugged," and spend time reading textbooks, using workbooks, reading library books and doing hands-on experiments - just like in a traditional school.

Virtual students at our school also have many opportunities to interact with each other. Like all kids, they choose to IM, text or talk to each other on the phone. INSPIRE also sets up a number of field trips each month so students can get together as a group. Many of the students find that the flexibility of virtual education makes it possible to be involved in activities, such as sports and volunteering.

All virtual schools may seem the same, but they are not all created equal. Parents need to do homework and find a school with a proven track record of delivering student academic achievement and high levels of parent and student satisfaction. Parents should consider whether or not the program is accredited by a highly regarded accrediting body, such as AdvancED and should look for a school that offers a full-time program with certified and highly qualified teachers, state-of-the-art technology resources and community activities like clubs and field trips.

As a principal, I know every parent wants his or her child to receive the best education possible. There are many options out there for families to consider, which is why it is important to have a complete and accurate picture of virtual schooling. Ultimately, you must decide if virtual schooling is right for your student, but one thing I know for certain - all of my students at INSPIRE, the Idaho Connections Academy are receiving a quality education that is second to none.

Gerald Chouinard is the principal of INSPIRE, the Idaho Connections Academy.

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