Online instruction is nothing new at the college and university level, but only a few school districts in California offer it for elementary or secondary students. Reporter: Ben Adler
Elk Grove Unified School District, located just south of Sacramento, is one of the first school districts in California to offer online courses.
While online courses are nothing new at the college and university level, only a few districts in the state offer them for elementary or secondary schools.
Eighth-grader TJ Foster is one of 200 students in Elk Grove Unified's brand-new Virtual Academy. Each day, at his home in Wilton in rural Sacramento County, he signs into a website and takes the same subjects he'd take in a traditional, brick-and-mortar school. He watches videos, reads textbooks, and literature -- online and in print -- and gets help on his assignments from his learning coach, otherwise known as "Mom."
According to TJ a typical day goes like this:
"We get on, we look at our daily plan and go through it. Usually there's an assessment to see how much I know about the subject. We have G.U.M., which is language arts. We read a story. We do some science, do a little bit of math and call it quits by sometime at 1:00 or 2:00."
TJ wasn't happy in his tiny rural school district. He didn't like his classmates, and his teachers moved too slowly for him. The Fosters looked at private and charter schools, but they weren't the right fit they said.
Then, the family learned about Elk Grove's Virtual Academy. The Academy offers online courses for each grade level sponsored by the district. TJ studies at home with help from his mother Lisa.
"I'm not his teacher," said Lisa. "I'm here to help him stay on track, make sure that he understands what he's reading, and that he's actually doing the assignments. I can always look online to see if he's done."
But this isn't home schooling, at least not in the traditional sense. TJ has a teacher with the school district with whom he'll meet regularly. And the curriculum isn't determined by TJ or his mom. It comes from a private company that contracts with the school district called K12.
"The idea is really to create an online experience and courses that are as good as, or even better sometimes, than what you can get in the classroom," said K12 founder and CEO Ron Packard.
Packard says the service K12 offers is far more than putting a textbook online.
"For example, we might bring in, in chemistry, chemical reaction simulators that show you how the molecular reaction is happening in a chemical reaction," said Packard.
His company calls itself the nation's "largest provider of online education" for kindergarten through 12th grade. It offers everything from individual classes to entire virtual schools. K12 now serves 70,000 kids in 25 states and Washington, D.C. And it's worked with Elk Grove and Los Angeles County's Charter Oak Unified School District to open virtual academies this fall.
But UC Davis education professor Cynthia Carter Ching says K12's curriculum raises concerns.
"Their early reading lists focus entirely on fairy tales like Aesop's Fables," said Ching. "And then as you get older, they become more, sort of, admittedly award-winning and classic, but yet also very old-fashioned and very whitewashed kinds of novels."
Missing are the type of books that the state of California encourages on its more diverse reading list. K12 does not include evolution in its curriculum unless specifically requested by a parent or school district.
Critics also take issue with the company's financial model.
Elk Grove Unified sends half of the state money it gets for each Virtual Academy student to K12. Professor Ching says companies like K12 ought to be looked at in the same way as vouchers.
"The fact that public dollars are going to fund curriculum that isn't necessarily what educational experts in the state have decided that people need to be exposed to is a problem," she said.
And there's another twist: competition. Like charter schools, virtual schools can recruit students, and their public funds, from outside the district.
But Elk Grove's Anne Zeman says the district didn't start its Virtual Academy just to increase revenue. It lets her district stay relevant by offering families an alternative education model.
"Charter schools have been the primary venue for the provision of online learning for virtual
schooling," said Zemen. "Why can't public schools offer the same?"
According to Zeman, Elk Grove's Virtual Academy will follow the state standards for curriculum, not K12's.
"In the cases which our teachers believe we need to supplement what's provided by K12, our teachers have the liberty do that," Zeman said.
Other California districts are looking closely at Elk Grove to decide whether they want to get into virtual schooling too.
K12 is talking with districts in Los Angeles County, the Bay Area, and the Sacramento region. A K12 official says the desire to increase revenue by pulling in students from outside districts is a big reason why.