• Image about Massachusetts Virtual Academy
Art by Ryan Snook

Trailblazing institutions like the Massachusetts Virtual Academy prove that a brick-and-mortar building isn’t necessary for expanding the brain.

In 2008, Susan Hollins had a strange idea. She had just been named superintendent of the school district in the western Massachusetts town of Greenfield, where times were tough for the town and tax rolls low. In an effort to save money, there had been talk — often heated — among some of Greenfield’s 18,000 residents of closing the district.

But the new superintendent had another thought: Why not open a K–12 public school that needed no building but instead operated exclusively online? Such a school could increase revenue — since, with the pesky issue of transportation no longer a factor, any child in the state could attend for a $5,000 enrollment fee (for enrolling in a district other than his or her own), which is paid by the child’s resident district.

Aside from that, though, Hollins wanted to find a way to serve kids who have physical limitations, debilitating diseases or behavioral problems — the kids for whom cancer is a reality or bullies a terrifying threat — or even the kids whose parents work in far-flung locations for months at a time. All these children have needs, Hollins knew, that precluded them from a typical classroom. So, she reasoned: Let them learn in an online one.

The concept of virtual learning has been grabbing attention and gradually picking up speed.

No such institution existed in Massachusetts at the time, but the idea of online schooling wasn’t an entirely novel one. As early as the 1960s — when University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign professor Don Bitzer invented a system that allowed students and teachers to work in concert remotely — the concept of virtual learning has been grabbing attention and gradually picking up speed. In 1989, when many people hadn’t even heard of the Internet, the University of Phoenix established an “online campus,” the first of its kind. A little more than a decade later, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology launched its OpenCourseWare program, in which entire courses are available to the public — free — online.

Eventually, the concept began to trickle down from the ranks of higher education into the primary and secondary levels, with full-time online-only elementary schools, junior highs and high schools cropping up across the country as early as 2000. According to Allison Powell, vice president of state and district services for the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, there are now roughly 220 schools in 27 states that offer a class or entire curriculum online. Most of these, Powell notes, are charter schools, which by their very nature seek out new ways to teach children and aren’t beholden to many of the restrictions and guidelines that public schools are.

Those restrictions are what made Hollins’ proposal for an exclusively online public school so radical. After a months-long, meeting-intensive approval process with the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the plan was passed, and last September, the Massachusetts Virtual Academy at Greenfield opened its doors. Its virtual doors, at least.

“I’ve always had an interest in complementing public schools, and that’s what [the Virtual Academy] is,” Hollins says. “But somebody’s got to be the first one to do it.” In its inaugural year, the Virtual Academy received applications from roughly 800 students from across the state. Many of them had developmental needs. Some had life-threatening illnesses. Some acted or modeled or had other pursuits that kept them from being able to maintain a normal schooling schedule. In the end, more than 300 students, representing all 14 of Massachusetts’ counties, were admitted.