Missouri moves toward virtual school

Friday, December 8, 2006

ST. LOUIS -- Missouri will open a virtual school on the Internet next year with the promise of advanced instruction for bright students, make-up opportunities for those lagging behind and learning opportunities for home-schooled or sick children.

Missouri's K-12 Virtual Instruction Program will be available for the 2007 to 2008 school year, allowing students to take a course from an Internet-connected computer 24 hours a day, any day of the week.

The plan is to let students take Advanced Placement courses or recover credits from failed classes while offering more classes to homeschooled or private-school children looking to expand their curriculum.

It'll also allow students to take classes if they have scheduling conflicts, if courses are not offered by their schools or if they are homebound or have special needs.

Already interest is high.

At first, "I know we're going to have more demand for these classes than supply," said Curt Fuchs, Missouri's virtual school director.

He has already heard from about 200 teachers interested in instructing and receives 30 to 50 e-mail inquiries a week.

Missouri will be the 25th state with a statewide virtual education program, he said. The state, at this point, will not provide computers or other electronic equipment for this schooling.

Students taking classes through the virtual school, even private school students, will participate in statewide assessment tests.

The program has been set up to reach the equivalent of 500 full-time students taking six classes each in its first year. In reality, more than 500 students will take part, since many students will want just one offering online.

Applications for interested students will be accepted in May. A lottery system for individual students has been developed, breaking down how many students can be accepted from different regions of the state, based on student populations.

But the families of middle school students are going to have to be patient. The first year of the program does not currently include classes for sixth, seventh and eighth graders.

"I'm supposed to have a K-12 program," Fuchs said. "Other states said, 'Go at it slow.'"

Classes for middle-school aged children will be added in the virtual school's second year, after Fuchs got permission from the education commissioner to set up the program in phases.

"I hated to do that, but I think we have to be realistic about what we can do, and do well," he said.

Former state senator Anita Yeckel, a Republican, is serving as the director of a parents' group that supported the new law creating the virtual school, called Missourians for Online Education. She still wants to see programs for middle-school aged children the first year and said efforts may be made to seek additional funding due to the high level of interest in the virtual school.

The program so far has received $125,000 from the state for startup costs, with $2.6 million requested for the 2008 fiscal year, said Marty Drewel, the Office of Administration's deputy budget director.

The chairman of Missourians for Online Education, Garry Jones of Kansas City, Mo., has a 12-year-old daughter who is home-schooled by her parents because of her asthma and allergies.

She already learns online through a program her family pays for. She has textbooks at home, but does work online and can instant message or call her teacher to ask questions or have discussions. Her father said the Internet instruction allows his daughter to learn at her own pace.

He supports classes for middle school students the first year as well. Both he and Yeckel also would like to see the lottery system tied to families, so that if one child got in, other students in the same family could take part. That would be helpful to families that are home schooling.

"You can organize it so you teach them all at one time and give them grade-specific assignments," he said.

Fuchs said the concern with enrolling an entire family is that it could take up several spots before the program expands, limiting openings for others. He said apart from the lottery, the virtual school is being set up with a tuition option, where those who are interested could choose to pay to take online classes.


On the 'Net:

Missouri's K-12 Virtual Instruction Program:

www.dese.mo.gov/movip/

Missourians for Online Education: www.mo4onlineeducation.org

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