The Elk Grove Unified School District just south of Sacramento is
the first in the region to give it a try. But this kind of
online education is also raising some red flags.
The Virtual Classroom
For 8th grader TJ Foster, school can sound like
Video Clip: "So let me grab a
scale here and see if I can show you guys what I mean …"
… or this …
TJ: "Seriously, Mom?"
Lisa: "Just put a 'number one' -
But usually, it sounds like this:
(silence and the sound of clicks from a computer
TJ is one of 200 students in Elk Grove Unified's brand-new
Virtual Academy. Each day, at his home in Wilton in rural
Sacramento County, he signs into a website and takes the same
classes he'd take in a traditional, brick-and-mortar
school. He watches videos … reads textbooks and literature -
online and in print … and gets help on his assignments from his
learning coach - otherwise known as "Mom."
TJ: "Mark every
Lisa: "Read the
What's a typical day like?
TJ: "We get on, we look at our
daily plan and go through usually there's an assessment to see how
much I know about the subject. We have GUM - which is language
arts. We read a story. We do some science, do a little
bit of math and call it quits by sometime at 1 or 2."
TJ wasn't happy in his tiny rural school district. He
didn't like his classmates - and his teachers moved too
slowly. The Fosters looked at private and charter schools, but
they weren't the right fit. Then, the family learned about Elk
Grove's Virtual Academy: online courses sponsored by the
district. TJ studies at home - with help from his mother
Lisa: "I'm not his
teacher. I'm here to help him stay on track, make sure that he
understands what he's reading and that he's actually doing the
assignments. I can always look online to see if he's
The Virtual Curriculum
But this isn't home schooling - at least, not in the
traditional sense. TJ has a teacher - with the school district
- with whom he'll meet regularly. And the curriculum isn't up
to TJ or his parents. It comes from a private company that
contracts with the school district called K12.
Packard: "The idea is really to
create an online experience and courses that are as good as or even
better sometimes than what you can get in the
K12 founder and CEO Ron Packard says it's far more than
putting a textbook online.
Packard: "For example, we might
bring in, in chemistry, chemical reaction simulators that show you
how the molecular reaction is happening in a chemical
Packard's company calls itself the nation's "largest provider
of online education" for grades K-through-12. It offers
everything from individual classes to entire virtual
schools. K12 now serves 70,000 kids in 25 states and
Washington, DC. But UC Davis education professor Cynthia
Carter Ching says K12's curriculum raises concerns.
Ching: "Their early reading
lists focus entirely on fairy tales - Aesop's Fables. And then
as you get older, they become more - sort of - admittedly
award-winning and classic but yet also very old-fashioned and
whitewashed kinds of novels."
…as opposed to the more diverse reading list recommended by
the state of California.
Finances and Competition
Then, there's the company's financial model. Elk Grove
Unified sends half of the state money it gets for each virtual
academy student to K12. Professor Ching says companies like
K12 ought to be looked at the same way as vouchers.
Ching: "The fact that public
dollars are going to fund curriculum that isn't necessarily what
education experts in the state have decided that people need to be
exposed to is a problem."
And there's another twist: competition. Like charter
schools, virtual schools can recruit students - and their public
funds - from outside the district. But Elk Grove Unified's
Anne Zeman says the district didn't start its Virtual Academy just
to increase revenue. It lets her district stay relevant, she
says, by offering families an alternative education model.
Zeman: "Charter schools have
been the primary venue for the provision of online learning for
virtual schooling. Why can't public schools offer the
Zeman also says Elk Grove's Virtual Academy will follow the
state standards for curriculum, not K12's.
Zeman: "In the cases which our
teachers believe we need to supplement what's provided by K12, our
teachers have the liberty do that."
Other California districts are looking closely at Elk Grove to
decide whether they want to get into virtual schooling
too. And a K12 official says the desire to increase revenue by
pulling in students from outside districts is a big reason