WICHITA, Kansas — Online schooling got off to a rocky start in Kansas, with teachers quickly piecing together virtual offerings. Parents complained about needing to be constantly involved while the work failed to engage their students.
Now faced with sending their children back to a physical classroom this fall, Kansas parents are trying to enroll kids in the state’s virtual schools. Lawrence’s received more than three times as many applicants compared to this time last year, and Wichita Public Schools' Education Imagine Academy filled up in a week.
Kansas has had more than 100 virtual schools and programs for years, allowing students to learn at their own pace and keeping clumsy video-chat lessons to a minimum. But virtual school advocates say it’s not the right option for every student. Here are five things parents should consider before enrolling.
Parents say that many Kansas kids struggled staying motivated without a teacher standing in front of them. Those students would likely have the same issue at a virtual school, according to educators.
Teachers still check in on students at virtual schools, but students can go days — or weeks — without talking with an educator. That means students must self discipline to work on their own.
In the Wichita district, “students are able to also contact teachers at any time,” Deputy Superintendent Tiffinie Irving said, “but it is not the day-to-day instruction and day-to-day interaction.”
The benefits: Students get to direct their own education, so if they work better in the late hours of the day rather than the morning, they have that option. It also gives them more flexibility to work while in school.
Students weren’t the only ones struggling to keep up with the school work in the spring. When kids couldn’t ask a teacher for quick help, they turned to parents — which isn’t a bad thing, until the second grader and high schooler both need help with math while you’re in the middle of a work Zoom meeting.
That same need for parental help is necessary at virtual schools, too. The Lawrence Virtual School program recommends parents stay home if their kid is enrolled, at least through sixth grade.
“If they’re going to transfer to a totally online school they need to understand … the parent involvement is huge,” said Kim Hett, technology and teacher leader at Andover eCademy.
At the very least, schools need parents’ help making sure kids are finishing their homework and not just tabbing over to Minecraft.
No common experience
While Kansas’ virtual schools all require parents get involved, what that looks like varies.
Virtual schools sprung up for different reasons and with different philosophies. Some want to give kids who can’t be in a physical school an experience as close to the traditional brick-and-mortar school model as possible, with more interaction between teachers and students and more parental involvement.
Others stray as far as they can from the classic education model, giving kids more independence and less time spent checking in with teachers.
Andover eCademy Principal Mark Templin believes there’s more variety in style between virtual schools than between public schools.
“To me, the first question a parent needs to ask is what type of virtual school do I want,” Templin said.
Local school full? Statewide options exist
Virtual schools have been filling up fast. Wichita’s Education Imagine Academy closed enrollment within a week of the district announcing its reopening plans.
Still, interested parents can look outside of their district, because many virtual schools in the state accept students so long as they live in Kansas — though those spots are starting to disappear.
Central State Academy, a part of the Nickerson-South Hutchinson Unified School District, received only slightly more applications in July compared to previous years. But in August, it saw more as parents in larger districts like Wichita began calling.
“I’m getting hit really just this last week,” Central State Academy Director Tracey File said on Aug. 6. “People are finally making that decision.”
You don’t need a virtual school to go virtual
Some districts are allowing students to learn online, with teachers from their physical school giving lessons like it was in the spring (though Wichita promises more rigor). But students will need to log in at specific times and a large chunk of the learning is done through video chats. Plus, students don’t have to switch schools.
This matters, because enrolling in a virtual school could mean giving up a spot in a competitive magnet school. Virtual schools usually ask for at least a semester commitment. They don’t want to lose kids when the coronavirus spread is better under control.
“Once they start, we don’t want them to leave,” said Candi Stewart, the coordinator of virtual education at the Lawrence Virtual School. “It’s really not what’s educationally best for the student.”
Stephan Bisaha reports on education and young adult life for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @stevebisaha.
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