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Tuesday, May 9, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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First online high school in state planned for fall

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The virtual high school — one that exists only in cyberspace — is coming to Washington next fall.

A Portland-based company called Insight Schools Monday announced plans to operate Insight School of Washington in partnership with Quillayute Valley School District, a small district on the Olympic Peninsula.

It will be the first fully online high school in this state — a place where students anywhere in Washington could take classes via computer and earn a diploma.

It also may be the first Washington school in which a private, for-profit firm hires the teachers and manages the day-to-day operations of a public school with oversight from the district and school board.

The new school was made possible by legislation passed last year that also opened the door for similar ventures. The Steilacoom School District, for example, plans next fall to go statewide with its online program for students in grades K-8, a partnership with K-12 Inc.

Even before the legislation, a number of school districts offered online offerings. Federal Way's Internet Academy, which enrolls students in grades K-12, is the biggest.

Statewide, about 9,000 students took one or more online courses last year, according to the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

But this newest twist in online learning is generating excitement as well as some questions as to funding and quality.

At a news conference Monday, Keith Oelrich, Insight Schools' founder and chief executive officer, was joined by former Gov. Gary Locke and former Senate Majority Leader Bill Finkbeiner, who will be the school's executive director.

Locke, who helped jump-start digital learning while he was governor, expressed excitement about Insight Schools' goal of reaching students who are not now in school.

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"It's using technology to reach a segment of students that has fallen through the cracks," he said.

The company would provide each student with a laptop, Internet access and a printer. Students could choose from 140 courses taught or overseen by Washington teachers — everything from Advanced Placement courses to remedial ones. Students would pay no tuition.

The school would be overseen by an executive committee, which initially would include three representatives from Insight Schools and two from the district.

Quillayute, based in Forks, would keep 6 percent of the federal and state money that it receives for each student, with the rest going to Insight Schools. Oelrich estimates that amount at about $6,000 per student. In addition, the school district would receive 25 percent of the profits.

Oelrich has a long history in online learning, most recently with a company called KC Distance Learning. Insight School of Washington would be Insight Schools' first venture. It hopes to start similar ones in other states.

The Quillayute School District was a pioneer in online learning in this state. Its superintendent, Frank Walter, says he sees Insight School as an opportunity to do something that the school district alone couldn't afford, to make some money and to provide an alternative to students who aren't suited to, or can't attend, regular public schools.

There is no intention, he said, of trying to attract students away from other districts.

But some worry that the new school will draw students away from other schools, and the dollars that go with them.

Some also questioned how the venture could make money.

Ron Mayberry, principal of the Internet Academy, said his school barely breaks even.

Mayberry also questioned the value of buying curriculum, as Insight School of Washington plans to do. The Internet Academy, Mayberry said, develops most of its own courses in part because it's cheaper, but also to make sure classes are well-designed for Washington students.

The commercial products, he said, all claim to meet Washington state learning standards, but they do only in a very general sense. They are designed to meet standards not just in one state, but many.

Nationally, the quality of online high schools is uneven, said Dennis Small, who works with educational technology at OSPI.

"It's very much buyer beware," he said.

Oelrich, however, said Insight School of Washington will be a high-quality program that can meet the needs of many students who aren't now in school at all.

And although the company expects to make money, profit isn't its primary motivation.

"If we were just in this to make money, there are a lot of easier things we could do," he said.

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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