What Families Need to Know About K-12 Online Schools | K-12 Schools
When schools reopened last fall, many families were relieved to leave virtual learning behind. But for some – especially those with health issues or children who have struggled in traditional school – online school may be an attractive long-term alternative.
After pivoting to remote learning during the pandemic, some public school districts have decided to continue offering an online option in the future. Columbus City Schools in Ohio is one of them.
“We know there’s not just one way to teach and one way to learn and graduate,” says Kyra Schloenbach, academic director of Columbus Schools. The district has listened to students and parents about their experiences with online school during COVID-19, and “what we’ve learned is that some students have really thrived in this environment.”
Although it may have felt like distance learning was invented overnight, online K-12 schools have been around for two decades, mostly in the form of private and charter schools. Before the pandemic, about 375,000 K-12 students were enrolled in full-time online schools in the 2018-2019 school year, according to a report by the Digital Learning Collaborative.
Private online schools serve all 50 states and international students, and 35 states now offer free public online school options. Students primarily learn at home, but some private and charter schools have physical facilities. Columbus, like some other places, plans to offer tours and in-person gatherings. There are also “co-educational” or hybrid schools, which offer a mix of virtual and in-person instruction.
With all of these options, finding a quality program that is both family-friendly and supports long-term academic success can be a daunting task.
What to look for in an online school
Let’s start by addressing the elephant in the room (or on the Zoom, as the case may be): what most families have learned remotely during the pandemic is a far cry from what an intentional online school looks like. Tillie Elvrum, co-founder of Parent Support for Online Learning, says students spending many hours a day listening to a teacher on Zoom is not a best practice for online learning.
Elvrum’s son attended online schools through Connections Academy, a network of virtual charter schools owned by Pearson and one of the largest online K-12 education providers in the United States. . She describes the experience as interactive and engaging. Instead of sitting on Zoom, “you’re in the kitchen doing an experiment, or reading a book, or writing an article.” Mickey Revenaugh, co-founder of Connections Academy, says typically 70-80% of online learning happens asynchronously, with teachers spending the remaining time in online classes clarifying concepts and interacting with their students. .
Experts advise looking for accredited programs with certified teachers and note that quality online programs generally offer the same comprehensive services as traditional schools, including counselors, clubs, sports, and extracurricular activities. Machelle Kline, student services manager at Columbus City Schools, says daily attendance and regular checks by content area to gauge understanding are important.
Caregivers should also consider access to technology – many home-based online schools provide laptops and other resources, and some can subsidize internet costs. And as with any school, look for data such as test scores, student-teacher ratios, state performance ratings, and graduation rates, as the quality of online schools can vary widely.
Advantages and disadvantages of online school
How do you know if online school is right for your child? Experts say some of the reasons families have chosen online learning include:
- Ongoing concerns about COVID-19.
- School safety issues, including students who have been bullied.
- Students who work at a different grade level than their peers.
- Students whose learning needs are not being met in their school.
- Students who are also parents or guardians.
- Medically compromised or vulnerable students.
- Families looking for flexibility in their learning schedules.
- Families living abroad.
- Caregivers who wish to play a greater role in their child’s education.
These different experiences point to something that proponents say online schools do well: tailoring instruction to individual needs. Elvrum noted that the flexibility to spend more time on difficult concepts and let students work at their own pace and on their own schedule is one of the most appealing aspects of this model for families.
And Revenaugh says online teachers have more time to develop relationships with students because they don’t need to spend as much time on things like classroom management and grading (which is mostly done through computer in Connections Academy).
At the same time, online school is not suitable for all families. For one thing, schools that don’t have their own facilities often require families to provide a “learning coach” – a caregiver who supports the student throughout the program. Younger students particularly need supervision during the day and generally require more time from the learning coach; Connections Academy suggests coaches plan to spend five hours a week helping students in grades K-5. Kline also notes that to be successful in this role, coaches must distinguish between providing support and doing the work for their child.
Another issue is quality: A 2019 report from the National Education Policy Center notes that there are “serious questions about the effectiveness of many virtual education models.” Many students are still catching up after schools moved away during the pandemic. And while these emergency conditions do not represent best practices in online education, several studies prior to the pandemic have found K-12 online schools to be underperforming traditional.
For example, the NEPC report found that online schools had a four-year high school graduation rate of just 50% in 2017-2018, compared to a national average of 84%. And less than half of all online schools with state performance ratings received an acceptable rating in the 2017-18 school year.
In some cases, virtual schools, particularly some charters, have been embroiled in years-long lawsuits for alleged fraudulent activities.
How much does online school cost?
Families interested in a private online school will find that annual tuition can vary widely; a recent search found options starting at less than $2,000 per year and going up to $14,000. Many providers offer tuition discounts for siblings, military families, and others. And most programs have admissions specialists who can discuss financial options with families.
Public options — including charter schools — are free; contact your local school district or the state Department of Education to see what options are available.