“There was a terrific opportunity to finally apply some of this learning science work at scale, to make learning environments that could really make a difference for students,” Saxberg said. He left the company to join Kaplan Inc. in 2009.
Kaplan is a for-profit education provider owned by The Washington Post Co. It competed directly with K12 until May, when K12 acquired Kaplan’s virtual-schools business. Kaplan continues to offer test-preparation courses, and in November the two companies announced an agreement to share distribution of some products and services.
K12 sells a variety of ways to learn online, ranging from hybrid schools — in which students meet in a classroom but take courses via computer — to a la carte courses purchased by traditional schools.
Last year, K12 formed a joint venture with Middlebury College to offer foreign language courses. This year, it bought a stake in a Chinese company that teaches English online.
But K12’s core business — and the one proving most controversial — is full-time virtual public schools.
No need for the bus stop
For Tyler Hirata, going to school used to mean waking up at 6 a.m. and clambering aboard a yellow bus. Now he snoozes until midmorning and pads downstairs to the computer in his Dumfries home.
“This is fantastic!” said Tyler, 8, who had attended a Prince William County school but was enrolled this fall in the Virginia Virtual Academy — a public institution run by K12 and open to any student in the commonwealth.
Tyler said the best thing about taking third grade online is that it requires less than three hours a day. His mother is more excited that, for the first time, Tyler is reading fluently on his own.
“The K12 program is phenomenal,” said Michele Hirata, adding that Tyler blossomed with her daily one-on-one attention. Virtual school has been equally positive for her fifth-grade daughter, Gennifer, 10, a fast learner who spends five hours a day practicing gymnastics, she said.
Virtual class sizes tend to be larger than at traditional schools — the Virginia academy averages 60 students per teacher, according to a school document. So in the primary grades, the model relies on the intensive work of a parent “learning coach,” who provides most lessons away from the computer, using books and 90 pounds of other educational materials shipped to families by K12.