Fairfax County considers creating virtual high school

Dayna Smith/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST - Michele Hirata helps her daughter Gennifer, 10, as she studies at home Nov. 10 through Virginia Virtual Academy, a full-time public school run by the state through which students take all classes online. Fairfax County may start a similar program.

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.

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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 proposal.

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 students.

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 bullying.

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.

Online already

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.”

 
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