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Monday, September 11, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM


Hundreds of kids flock to state's new online schools

Seattle Times staff reporter

Washington's two newest online schools didn't know how many students to expect when they announced they would open their virtual doors this fall. Leaders cautiously hoped for 250, maybe 300 as a start.

They were low — way low. As school starts, the two public schools are happily struggling to handle double and triple that number.

Insight School of Washington, the state's first fully online high school, stopped accepting students after 650, and has 1,000 more who've expressed interest. The Washington Virtual Academy, a K-8 based in Steilacoom, has 652 students registered, and another 500 in the application pipeline.

It's another spurt in the growth of online learning in Washington state, where more than 9,000 students took one or more online classes last year.

Going to school via computer is "not for most kids," said Bill Finkbeiner, executive director of Insight School, a partnership between a Portland company and the small Quillayute Valley School District in Forks. "Most students are going to do better in traditional high schools. But there are a significant percentage of students who don't fit in to a regular high school and, for many of them, this is a good option."

About one-quarter of Insight School's students previously were home-schooled, according to Finkbeiner.

Some had dropped out of high school, he said. Some don't like the high-school social scene. Others want the flexibility of the online schedule so they can hold down jobs, or, in a few cases, because they're elite athletes who have an extensive training and travel schedule. "It's pretty much the group of students that we thought would show up," Finkbeiner said. "Students who are struggling or who aren't fitting into high school."

How the schools work

Insight School of Washington

Hosted by: Quillayute Valley School District, Clallam County

Run by: Insight School of Washington

Enrollment: 650, grades 9-12

How it works: Students take five to six classes each semester, using a school-supplied laptop to get assignments, read and view course materials and attend class sessions in a "virtual" classroom where students and teachers can talk and view materials together. (Some of the courses come with textbooks, too.) Students can choose from as many as 140 classes. They can complete schoolwork any time of day, but they must turn in assignments by specific dates to their instructor, or put it into a digital "dropbox." Their instructors are available via e-mail, phone and on the "virtual" classroom site. In addition to the teachers who lead each course, each student also is assigned a mentor teacher who monitors the student's progress. The school has a number of measures in place to detect cheating, such as recording the amount of time spent on online quizzes. Students receive letter grades. To graduate, they must pass all the classes required of other students in the Quillayute Valley School District. They also must take the WASL and, if they're in the class of 2008 or beyond, pass it to graduate.

Washington Virtual Academy

Hosted by: Steilacoom School District

Run by: K12 Inc.

Enrollment: 652 and growing, grades K-8

How it works: Parents and students receive K12 Inc.'s curriculum materials, which include books, workbooks and other materials necessary to do assignments. Parents (or other family members or adults who are instructing the student) get a teacher's guide to help them present lessons to students, and the "teaching adult" evaluates the student's work. About one-quarter of the work is done on the computer in the early grades; students can work at different grade levels in different subjects — a fourth-grader can study fourth-grade reading, for example, and sixth-grade math. Students advance when they master a certain amount of material. Each family is assigned a certified teacher who monitors progress, talks regularly with students and parents, and is available for questions. Those teachers also sometimes do online instruction for groups of students, or arrange field trips for students who live near each other. Students must take the WASL and other district exams.

At Washington Virtual Academy, more than 60 percent of students are home-schoolers or previously attended private schools, said Susan Stewart, the school's chief administrator. About 20 percent will attend school part-time, she said. (Insight School accepts only full-time students.)

In both schools, students come from all corners of the state, with larger numbers from the larger urban areas.

A change in Washington law last year made it clear that public schools could operate online programs in which teachers have no face-to-face contact with students.

Critics question whether it's a good idea for students to miss the give-and-take of classroom debate and discussion. Many also warn that the quality of online classes is uneven, and that no research shows how well students learn when their classroom is a screen.

Sometimes, school districts create online courses themselves, such as the Federal Way Internet Academy, which until now had been this state's largest online school. Districts can also buy or license online courses from commercial providers. The two new schools also represent the first time that public schools have partnered with for-profit companies to operate online programs.

The Insight School is overseen by the Quillayute Valley School District but run by Portland-based Insight School Inc., which hires the teachers and manages day-to-day operations. Insight hired Finkbeiner, a state senator who is retiring from that job this year, to be the school's top administrator. Both Quillayute Valley and Insight hope to make money on the venture.

Quillayute Valley will keep 6 percent of the roughly $6,000 in federal and state money that it receives for each student, with the rest going to Insight School. Like in any other public school, students pay no tuition. The profit, if any, would come from the ability to operate at a cheaper cost than a brick-and-mortar school.

The Virtual Academy is a partnership of the Steilacoom School District and a company called K12 Inc. It started with about 50 students last year, all of whom lived in the district. This is the first year it has opened enrollment statewide. Steilacoom, however, doesn't expect the program to cost less than the amount the district will receive from its students, said Assistant Superintendent Penny Jackson. The district opened the program primarily as a way to offer something to families interested in teaching their children at home, she said.

But the concerns about online learning haven't seemed to dampen interest. Along with the two new schools, many districts are expanding their online offerings. The Federal Way Internet Academy, which opened 10 years ago, says its enrollment is up slightly this year, too, with about 400 students enrolled this fall. The Internet Academy offers classes for students in grades K-12 but doesn't grant high-school diplomas.

Representatives from both new schools have traveled the state to promote their programs, and the Virtual School is planning another round of meetings this September.

For students and their parents, the attraction of online learning is its flexibility. For 14-year-old Jordan Cruz, for example, the Insight School will allow him to work in the way he likes best: independently.

He is too old for the small private school he'd attended through eighth grade, said his mother, Eva Cruz. He had no interest in going to a big high school.

Insight School, she said, "was just an answer to all my prayers."

For Carri Lund, an Olympia mother, Washington Virtual Academy is a way she can continue to teach her two daughters at home, yet be a part of a public school. She now receives assistance from a certified teacher who monitors her daughters' progress, gives advice and answers questions. Virtual Academy teachers also organize field trips, and sometimes give instruction online.

Instead of paying for the K12 Inc. curriculum, Lund now gets those materials for free. (The family, however, must provide the computer and Internet connection.) And her daughters can progress faster than if they were in school.

A few weeks ago, more than a dozen boxes arrived on the Lunds' doorstep. They carried the boxes upstairs to what the family calls the "school" room. Sometime this week, she and her daughters will head up there to start the school year. With the K12 Inc. curriculum, only about a quarter of the work is generally done on the computer, the Virtual Academy says.

Jordan Cruz just received his computer, which Insight School provides for each of its students. He also has school clothes, which his mother insists he put on each morning as part of his school routine, even if he won't be leaving the house. And Cruz will soon attend one of Insight School's orientation meetings where students will meet some of their classmates and teachers face to face. Among other things, they'll cast votes for a school mascot.

"Building a sense of community within the school is really important to us," Finkbeiner said.

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company



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