Virtual Elementary School: Should You Enroll Your Kids?

For different personal reasons, many parents are leaning toward online classes for their kids. But is online education the best academic track for your child?
boy on computer

Alexandra Grablewski

Six-year-old Jayden Carter spends his school day like most elementary school children. He wakes up early in the morning, gets dressed, and heads to school. But to get to school, Jayden doesn't hop on a bus or in a car. Instead, he logs on to a computer in his kitchen to attend an online school.

Since kindergarten, Jayden, who lives in Kamuela, HI, has been enrolled in the Myron B. Thompson Academy in Honolulu, a public charter school that offers instruction both online and in person. He attends a live lecture every Tuesday that he views using a webcam and he speaks to the teacher using a microphone. He can even see his classmates, located on other Hawaiian islands, when they speak. The rest of the time, he completes schoolwork in his family's garage or kitchen. He scans and submits work to his teacher via email.

For years, adults have been earning undergraduate and graduate degrees through online education programs, but more elementary and high school students are taking some or all of their classes online. According to the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL), 250,000 kindergarten through 12th grade students were enrolled in online schools full-time in 2010-2011. This number represents a big increase from a decade ago, when 40,000 to 50,000 students were enrolled in K-12 online education.

Reasons for Choosing Virtual Schools

Parents choose online schooling for their young children for many reasons. "I think it's becoming more popular because of the convenience," says Jayden's mom, Molly. "We can be on our own schedule." Many parents choose it because they're not satisfied with their local public school; others find they have more control over what and how their children learn.

"We had all kinds of kids [enrolled in online schools]. We had homebound kids who couldn't go to school because of a medical issue. We had actors, Olympic athletes, and other people who were not living in one place for a long time," says Allison Powell, Vice President of State and District Services at iNACOL and a former teacher at an online school in Las Vegas, NV. "I also had a couple of kids who were bullied at their regular school, and I had one family that was very religious, and the mother would supplement online learning with religious studies."

For Elizabeth Friscia of San Diego, whose two daughters, Jayne and Juliana, are enrolled at the San Juan Capistrano education campus of Connections Academy, one of the biggest benefits of a cyber charter school is that it teaches them independence and responsibility. Jayne is now in sixth grade at Connections Academy and Juliana is now in first grade.

"In a brick-and-mortar school, Jayne was doing what she was told to do all day. Now she has more flexibility," Friscia says. "But it took her nearly a year and a half to get her to where she understood the concept of being responsible for her own work. This is something most of us don't learn until college."

Online schooling can be tailored to fit individual academic needs. In some schools, students are given an individualized education plan based on an assessment at the beginning of their online study. The assessment pinpoints the student's areas of strength and where extra support is needed. If a student is a whiz in math but struggles in reading, he can progress in one area and receive extra help in the other through additional assignments until he understands the concept. Students move through the curriculum at their own pace and can complete advanced work in subjects at their grade level or a higher one.

"It gets away from groupthink, where learners have to move through grades at the same time," says Kerry Rice, associate professor and interim chair of the department of educational technology at Boise State University. "That's a benefit for young children."

The Pros and Cons of the Virtual Classroom

Although computers are a big part of online education, much of the actual work is completed in the same way as it is in a traditional school. Kids still read books, fill out worksheets, write papers, complete science experiments, and take quizzes and tests. Students submit work to teachers in a number of ways, depending on the assignment, says Janae Cardel, a kindergarten teacher at Connections Academy in Harrisburg, PA. Some of the assignments and assessments are printed, scanned, and uploaded via an online "drop box." Other work is done completely online. Many schools ship textbooks and other materials to the students. Parents, called learning coaches, are required to work closely with their child, making sure the child is completing the work. As students become older, more responsibility rests on them.

"The parent is a lot more involved at the elementary-school level, when students need more handholding," Powell says. "As the student gets older, they have to be motivated to log onto the computer, do the assignments, and ask for help when they need it."

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