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

Andy Opsahl  |  Staff Writer