Rather than keeping attendance, hours spent learning are logged: a required 425 for a kindergartner and 900 for first- through eighth-graders — the same standards upheld by traditional public schools. The virtual curriculum, which is compliant with state frameworks, is provided by K12 Inc., an online-learning company based in Virginia that has provided coursework and school services for more than 25 other similar schools across the country. And the school’s licensed staff members oversee the lesson plans, maintain both on- and offline office hours and are available to answer questions by phone, via e-mail or in person.
Jeff Schneider of Longmeadow, Mass., enrolled his two children in Greenfield’s Virtual Academy when traditional schooling couldn’t adequately meet their needs. His 11-year-old son, for instance, has written a novel and can understand physics, but he struggled in other more basic areas. Now, thanks to the virtual program, his son can learn at his own pace, based on his strengths and weaknesses.
“You have to cover the whole curriculum in the same amount of time as everyone else, but you can slow down and speed up individual lessons as much as you need to,” Schneider explains. “My son might do five sciences in a day, while something else may take longer. But at the end of the day, they still have to learn.”
Mitchell Chester, Massachusetts’ education commissioner, acknowledges the need for such individually tailored programs, saying, “I do believe there are students who have unique needs, so I do think there will be more virtual schools in the future.” But he admits to some misgivings about exclusively educating children in front of a computer screen. “The challenge,” he says, “is the lack of that [regular] face-to-face interaction.”
Of course, so much more is learned in a school setting than just reading, writing and arithmetic. Being around peers teaches valuable socialization skills, which detractors say are crucially missing from online-only education. Hollins anticipated this deficiency, but before she had time to address it, the students took the task upon themselves, Facebooking each other and setting up study dates and social get-togethers. Schneider, for one, insists that his son’s social development is actually better than it would be at a normal school. “Just because [traditional school is] social doesn’t necessarily make it good social,” says Schneider, whose son is active in Cub Scouts and other similar clubs. “He is far more social now, because he no longer hates school. He’s no longer miserable.”
Examples like this encourage Hollins in her quest. She doubts that virtual schooling will ever serve more than three percent of the youth population. But for this unique segment of the student population, the Virtual Academy allows for a public school experience to be shared, even if it’s administered in an unusual way.
Next year, the Greenfield school will expand to include high schoolers. And Chester says that other public school districts are asking about opening their own online outposts as well. For Hollins, the growth is not only gratifying, but also a sign of real progress.
“We’re committed to great public education,” Hollins says. “Now every student can have that.”