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Virtual school may open in Illinois
By Diane Rado
Illinois' first virtual public elementary school is preparing to open this fall to serve up to 600 Chicago students willing to spend their grade school years in a cyberspace classroom.
The idea has been tried in places around the country, and it is not without controversy.
The Chicago Virtual Charter School plans to serve a variety of children, including the gifted, those with learning disabilities and those who find it difficult to settle down in a more structured teaching environment.
In virtual school, parents will set their own school hours. Children will get an online curriculum tailored to their skill levels, and families will get computers and high-speed Internet access, in addition to workbooks and other instructional materials.
Despite the name of the school, children won't be sitting in front of a computer all day, said Sharon Hayes, a former principal and teacher in Chicago who will be head of school for the virtual school.
Hayes said she anticipates that most children will spend 20 percent to 40 percent of their time at their computers. The rest of the time, they will do workbook exercises and read, and do hands-on activities prompted by the lesson plans developed by the charter school's manager, K12 Inc.
As a longtime educator, Hayes believes children need to learn to socialize with peers, particularly in the years of preschool and kindergarten. At the same time, "I don't think they need to be surrounded by kids every single day," Hayes said.
The virtual school will have field trips and family activities such as bowling, she said, so children will be together. And students will be required to attend the virtual school's downtown learning center one day a week with other children.
Home-school families, for example, usually get their children involved in activities outside of home, so they socialize with other students, Hayes said.
The private company's programs are used in virtual schools in more than a dozen states and cities.
In January, the company won approval from Chicago Public Schools to launch the virtual school. K12 Inc. still needs to get approval from the Illinois State Board of Education before enrolling students and starting the school year.
The school's officials say they are confident they will get that approval, though they face opposition from the Chicago Teachers Union. Among other concerns, the union questions how the virtual school can assure children will get the hours of instruction required by state law.
Guadalupe VanderPloeg, a senior manager at K12, said parents will be required to track time spent on each subject, logging the minutes into the online school's computer system.
At home online, students might take a visit to a virtual museum, enter into a reading room to read an article on a particular subject, or do an interactive math game or exercises that assess their math skills.
But other work will be in workbooks and assignments away from the computer. The youngest students, such as kindergartners, will have the least time in front of the computer, focusing more on hands-on activities, VanderPloeg said.
"The philosophy is to use technology as needed to enhance instruction," she said.
Students will learn language arts, math, social studies, art and even gym through online lesson plans.
The lessons will cover subjects required for all public school students in Illinois, said Hayes.
Like other public charter schools, the virtual school will get public money to operate. Chicago Public Schools will pay $6,000 per student at the school.
Tina Hawkins, a member of the charter school's board of directors, said that for her 10-year-old son Ray, school was a "social event, and it was very difficult for him to settle in and focus on his work."
While Hawkins kept him in public school in Chicago, she began searching for a different setting that would capture his interest, expand on his love of computers and put him an a more unstructured environment.
She found it in the virtual school, and she plans to enroll him in the fall.
Virtual schools have generated controversy in other states, with opposition coming not only from teachers unions but from home-school advocacy groups.
The Home School Legal Defense Association is advising parents who home-school their children that virtual schools do not give them the same kind of freedom as home-schooling, spokesman Ian Slatter said.
The virtual schools are still public schools that must meet regulations on testing, standards and curriculum, he said.
So a family that might want to add a Christian perspective to coursework could be stymied in a public school setting, Slatter said.
Slatter also questioned how a virtual school could cost $6,000 per student, because home-school families spend far less, though many use Internet curriculums.
Virtual school officials say they have to pay for certified teachers, among other costs, while home-schooled families do not.
Chicago Public Schools still needs to work out a final agreement with the virtual school, which has to be sent to the State Board of Education for approval before the school can begin operating.
State board officials say they will look carefully at the proposal because it is something so new to Illinois.
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