Logging on to Learn

Online schools are free, flexible and getting more popular each year

Bailey Saint-Marc has an easy commute to school every day. All the fifth-grader has to do is roll out of bed, turn on the computer and begin his daily lessons.

Although it might sound like home schooling, it’s not. Saint-Marc is in the gifted program at Nevada Connections Academy, an online charter school—a free public school—that’s part of the growing field of online learning institutions in Nevada, including Nevada Virtual Academy, Odyssey Charter Schools and Silver State High School. In addition, the Clark County School District has Virtual High School, with more than 1,500 students.

At Nevada Connections Academy, students receive their lesson plan at the beginning of the year and have weekly expectations. Teachers are available online and via phone during “regular” school hours (8 a.m. to 4 p.m.), and also teach video classes at least once a week.

Saint-Marc’s mother, Stacey, says that the school gives her son the flexibility to work at his own pace. Stacey has been so impressed by the school that her kindergarten-age daughter, Paris, will also attend the online school this year.

“The reason I ended up choosing Connections Academy is because they actually allowed my children to be assessed and work at the level that they needed to be at,” Stacey says. Both her kids are active in sports, she adds, so they’re able to balance those activities with school.

Jennifer Nelson teaches gifted students, such as Bailey, in grades three through six at Nevada Connections Academy, and in the last three years has watched the school grow from 500 students to 2,200, the anticipated enrollment for 2010-11. She says it’s ideal for working teens, students with health problems and those living in remote areas.

“I think parents are also pulling them out because of the problems they have in public schools with behavior, crime and bullying,” Nelson says.

Kendall Hartley, associate professor of educational technology at UNLV, says the growth of online charter schools in Nevada and across the country is “explosive.” He compares most the schools (with the exception of the CCSD Virtual High School) to higher-education options such as University of Phoenix and DeVry University—for-profit entities with an increasing presence. Hartley notes that online charter schools are not charitable entities.

“These aren’t nonprofit groups that are coming in. They’re backed by equity investment firms, so they’re looking to make a dollar,” Hartley says. “They get public money as a charter school so the students don’t have to pay, but the state is paying them the same amount they would pay any public school. … They’re going to try to spend less on the education than they get from the state.”

In Nevada, the state pays charter schools such as Connections Academy $5,000 per student per year. Connections is based in Baltimore, and has state offices in Reno.

Hartley says there are pros, cons and a whole lot of variability to online schools.

“Like a face-to-face classroom, you can have a really good experience or a really poor experience.”

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