For most of the history of education, parents chose among sending their kids to brick-and-mortar public schools, spending thousands on private schools or going it alone by homeschooling their children. Now there's another choice: The Texas Virtual Academy (TXVA), in conjunction with Houston's Southwest Charter School, offers online public education to homeschooled children in grades three through eight.
Unlike traditional homeschooling, TXVA students take the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) test, intended to ensure students meet minimum performance standards. Parents doing traditional homeschooling are free to design their child's curriculum with minimal state oversight. That's not to say every homeschooling parent wings it. Many purchase professionally assembled curricula from private vendors, often including religious education unavailable in public schools.
The TXVA receives about $4,900 per student each year, the amount brick-and-mortar charter schools normally collect from the state. That means TXVA students participate and receive all supplies on loan by mail for free. Each child receives a computer as well as 50 pounds of boxed materials throughout the school year. Students who use a school-issued computer also receive a $12.95 subsidy per month to help pay for Internet service. That subsidy increases to $29.95 if the student declines a school computer. Enrollment imposes no other costs on parents.
"We ship microscopes, rock kits, sand, dirt, all sorts of different test tubes, goggles and everything," said Jeff Kwitowski, vice president of public relations for K12, the vendor managing operations for the TXVA.
The TXVA made 2006-2007 its pilot year, offering grades three through six and enrolling roughly 200 students, a cap imposed by the Texas Education Agency (TEA). The TEA raised that cap to 750 students for the 2007-2008 school year. The TXVA's enrollment climbed to 675 in January. TXVA teachers are state-certified and oversee roughly 50 students each, mostly by tracking progress via the Web.
TAKS scores for TXVA students were a mixed bag when compared to traditional brick-and-mortar school scores. For example, TXVA students scored 86 percent on the reading section while students in traditional public schools scored 87 percent. For math, TXVA students scored 66 percent while brick-and-mortar schools earned 75 percent. Only students in sixth grade and up took the science section: TXVA students scored 40 percent while students at brick-and-mortar schools scored 70 percent.
Despite the gap in science scores, "that was pretty good for a school just starting out," said Jack Evans, head of the TXVA.
Virtual Teaching World
TXVA students learn mostly via Web-based applications and offline tools with their parents. A certified teacher calls the family at least once a month, with additional calls to students who have questions their parents can't answer. One of the school's primary benefits is enabling students to schedule subjects at times of the day they learn those subjects best.
The certified teachers hold scheduled online teaching sessions for various subjects using a virtual classroom application called Elluminate Live. The setup includes a headset and microphone for each student, allowing them to talk with the instructor as he or she teaches using the application's "digital whiteboard."
The application combines several teaching tools, said Angela Deschner, a TXVA teacher.
"On the whiteboard, I can do all kinds of demonstrations - type things in. I also can pull in PowerPoint. I can take them on a Web tour on an interactive site and do different kinds of lessons through different types of technology available on the Web. I can load up things from different places to put on the whiteboard," Deschner said.
Students can reorganize content on the interactive whiteboard to suit their preferences by clicking and dragging. Students who miss lessons can access recordings of the sessions on their own time.
TXVA teachers also use software called QuizStar to give quizzes, which also function as an attendance taker. Teachers send out an
ungraded trivia question and take attendance based on which students answer it.
"I can entertain questions and have them raise hands," Deschner said. "If I have a multiple-choice question with A, B, C and D sitting there, they can each choose an answer, and we can poll to see what people chose and talk about it."
However, a parent is usually a TXVA student's primary instructor. It may seem intuitive to think that parents lacking professional teaching backgrounds would produce lower-performing students. But kids who learn from their parents at home perform better than students in brick-and-mortar schools, according to Home Schooling: From the Extreme to the Mainstream, a study conducted by the Canada-based Fraser Institute. It reports that 25 percent of homeschooled students perform one or more grade levels above their public- and private-school counterparts.
More surprisingly, the study asserts that homeschooled students taught by poorly educated parents perform better than public school students with similar parents.
"One study we reviewed found that students taught at home by mothers who never finished high school scored a full 55 percentile points higher than public school students from families with comparable education levels," said Claudia Hepburn, co-author of the study.
Deschner spent 10 years teaching in the brick-and-mortar public school system before joining the TXVA. Teaching for an online public school lets her work from home and tailor her job so she can care for her pre-kindergarten son.
"It's easier for me to go to an event at his school than if I were at a brick-and-mortar school. I can be available for my family and my students," Deschner said.
The TXVA gives her a laptop so she can handle her workload from most locations.
"I can work whether I'm at home or at the actual TXVA office for a meeting. I was in Virginia last week for a conference, and I was able to get back with families as I could through e-mail. My husband had a business trip, and I actually worked out of the hotel room and was able to travel with him at that time, make my conference calls to families and do everything I needed to do just like a regular day," Deschner said.
The TXVA is one of two public online schools in Texas. The second is the Texas Virtual School, in conjunction with the Houston Independent School District. Both schools were founded through a TEA program called the Electronic Course Program (eCP), which enables interested school districts and charter schools to implement online programs and receive state funding for each participating student. Few schools applied for the program, and the aforementioned two were the only ones that satisfied TEA's accountability rating.
Participation has grown in the two schools for a combined enrollment of just under 700 students, but the TEA hasn't offered the program to more schools since 2005. The agency must process students' attendance for their school to get funding, and TEA's automated student database can't process online attendance, said Kate Loughrey, director of distance learning for the TEA.
"We can't just plug those students into our automated statewide system because that system wasn't designed for a world where students aren't physically present on campus. The system can't report the students as being present, because being present requires certain rules saying you're in your seat," Loughrey said.
For the two online schools, TEA personnel make do with an Excel spreadsheet to process attendance and release state funding for the students. However, that process would have been too complicated to do statewide, said Loughrey. The TXVA's funding is based solely on student participation and performance. The TEA deducts $150 for each subject that a student fails on the TAKS.
Loughrey said the TEA may someday allow more school districts and charter schools to offer online education. However, even if the agency proceeds immediately, it would take a few years because the statewide database would need adjustments.
Caroline Hartung, the mother of a TXVA student, always homeschooled her daughter, Ashley, 9, who is in fourth grade. Caroline said the process became much easier after enrolling Ashley in the TXVA. In the past, she mostly "winged it" when assembling her daughter's curriculum. She spent more than $1,000 on lesson books and other materials at teacher supply stores each school year. She said it was nice to fund her daughter's education by taxes she has to pay anyway.
Caroline was reluctant, at first, to teach her children.
"I was one of those moms who thought that to teach your children school, you had to have a college degree in teaching. It's just not true. Anybody can homeschool their kids," Caroline said.
She said the TXVA's teaching manuals are user-friendly, and Deschner, Ashley's teacher, is always available for questions via telephone or e-mail.
"Say I have a lesson that totally stumps me - I might put that lesson off until the next day," Caroline said. "If I e-mail the teacher, she always gets in touch with me within 24 hours. Then I have it, and I'm on the road again. That really hasn't happened a whole lot because there are so many resources you can draw from if you don't understand something. It helps me to look through the lesson before I teach it."
Ashley said her favorite subject to learn from her mother is math.
"She gets really excited when she teaches me math because that's her favorite subject," Ashley said.
TXVA also provides physical education lesson plans.
"They offer exercises that they teach on a TV class, but we also do jump rope, hopscotch and relay races to make it a fun activity," Caroline said.
Ashley also plays soccer in a community recreation program and is interested in singing. The TXVA's music and arts curriculum is helpful, although it's below Ashley's ability level, said Caroline.
"They have the music class where she can learn to read music, pitch, tone and all of those things," Caroline said.
Ashley said her favorite part of learning at home is that she avoids bullies.
"There is a lot of gossiping. People tell other people promises that they really don't keep. When you're homeschooling, you don't have to deal with that," Ashley said.
What does she dislike about homeschooling?
"If I were in a public school, I'd get to be around my friends, like my next-door neighbor and the other people who live in my neighborhood a lot more," Ashley said.
Deschner said online learning meets the needs of kids who fell through the cracks in traditional public schools.
"I've got kids who have asthma who could not function well in a brick-and-mortar school and are doing wonderfully in this program," Deschner said, later adding, "I've got children who had attention issues, and the one-on-one they're getting through their parent is fabulous. You can't replicate that in a brick-and-mortar school very easily due to lack of teachers.
"We're seeing children grow academically who would not have grown in a brick-and-mortar school. It's exciting to see that we're meeting a need that hasn't been met before in utilizing this technology. The technology is awesome. I'm amazed each day at the new things I learn."