Jo Marie Bolick's picture

Online Educators are Pioneers

Growing up in Kansas, I’ve always been fascinated by pioneers – those who ventured west, accepting the challenge of the unknown. Do you remember the computer game, The Oregon Trail? That game is as close as I’ve come to experiencing wild terrain and the challenges faced by the Pioneers of the American west.

When it comes to education, however, my fellow online educators and myself are pioneers. Together we have mapped uncharted territory and used our unique abilities to define ourselves as online teachers and work together to serve students.

I began teaching at Insight School of Kansas (ISKS) in 2009. I’d just had a baby and left my traditional brick and mortar school for a flexible, online career opportunity. I quickly realized that there wasn’t a teacher down the hall who’d been teaching for a couple decades and was ready to share the tricks of the trade. My colleagues were as new at this online teaching gig as I was, and we were tasked with delivering high quality education to our students. I can’t say that we had it perfect year one, but I can say, without a doubt, is that we were committed to analyzing our teaching methods and revamping as necessary to best meet the needs of our students. Today, in 2016, we are fine tuning our methods and continually evaluating the effectiveness of our model.

CREDO, Mathematica, and CRPE released a study on online charter schools, which can be found here and here. This study provides an analysis of current online charter schools, information of policies associated with these schools, and finally, gives suggestions for online charter schools moving forward. This study does good job pointing out that the population of an online charter school is as unique as the model itself.

After reading this study, I felt as if the authors do not have a clear picture of what my colleagues and I do as online teachers on a daily basis. Although, I cannot make any broad generalizations, I can say for certain, there are a couple points mentioned in this article, that are not true for teachers at ISKS.

For example the study mentions “… online charter schools… usually rely extensively on “asynchronous” instruction that requires students to do their coursework independently and on their own time.” Although, my courses have a great deal of asynchronous material, live synchronous meetings with me are a large part of my students’ schedules. I meet with my students Monday through Thursday for an hour to deliver math instruction. They also receive instruction daily in at least two other subjects. In addition, I hold office hours and offer small groups for students who are struggling.

Perhaps, the largest misconception in this article for me as an online education occurs when the author states “Policymakers often raise concerns about the quality of teachers in [education management organization] schools – how the schools can be overseen effectively when traditional “walkthrough” inspections are not possible.”

If you haven’t taught in an online environment, you might not realize how absurd this statement is.

Lauren Weber's picture

All Students Deserve an Opportunity to Succeed

Recently a series of reports were released which sought to provide information and recommendations for online charter schools.

As an online teacher, there are points in this study that I can agree with, for example students come to our schools from all walks of life and for all different types of reasons. However, there are some statements made that I disagree with. 

Perhaps my biggest point of contention with this study is that it suggests a possible screening policy to see if an online school is the “right fit” for a student. This really got me thinking, since when is education a one-size fits all?  How can you screen students to see if this is the right fit for them?  What exactly would that entail?  If a student were scoring below average at their old school does that make them a good fit for our school or not?  We have many students who were struggling if not all out failing at their traditional brick and mortar schools who come to us and excel! If we turn students away based on past performance in a totally different environment, and have a selection process, does this even make us a public school anymore?  Are we just going to cherry pick students while turning away others? Is it ethical to select students likely to succeed while turning away at risk pupils?

People always ask me what types of students choose the online schooling option. 

The answer is every type.

At Insight School of Kansas (ISKS), we have gifted students who want to pick up unique classes that were not offered in their local districts. We have students who help out on the family farm and cannot make it to the traditional 8-3 school day. We have students who suffer from medical conditions that require them to remain in a non-evasive environment to protect their immune systems. We have students that were bullied to the point of debilitating depression and anxiety who are desperate for a safe learning environment. We educate students who are athletes who train for hours during the day. We also have teen parents who want more than anything to earn a high school diploma so that they can make a better life for their new child.

All of these students are what K12 is made up of and much more. Every student is unique and therefore they deserve choice in their education and what works best for them.

One thing that I have always been proud of as a teacher at ISKS is that we accept and educate the students who may not have any other option.

How can we expect a student who struggles with a medical issue to attend a brick-and-mortar school for seven hours each day if they need access to medicine, therapy, or doctors throughout the day? Our school can offer the most conducive learning environment for them.  We can offer a safe learning environment for the students who are bullied.  And a young teen mom who is struggling to support her baby, with this suggested policy of screening, would she be turned away never receiving a high school diploma?  At our school we give these students a chance. Sometimes it is their last and only option and I would be beyond devastated if we started turning these students away to meet some graduation rate quota.

Katie Poindexter's picture

My Students Are Not Virtual Twins

Last month, CREDO, Mathematica, and CRPE released a study on online charter schools. Read full report here. Using a “virtual twin” matching approach, comparisons were made between brick and mortar and virtual students’ academic achievement. Because the virtual twin underperformed the brick and mortar student, it was assumed that virtual education students are learning far below their brick and mortar peers. However, the study didn’t compare apples to apples.

The students in the matching process were matched by race/ethnicity, gender, English proficiency, lunch status, special education status and grade level. The philosophy that academic performance is comparable for students with identical demographics is faulty. If I made the assumption that every 6th grade, general education, white male, on free and reduced lunch that entered my classroom learned the same way, received my lesson the same way, and performed the same way, I would do my students a huge disservice. Each of my students is an individual with unique needs, and their own reasons for choosing virtual education. In addition, two critical factors of many that were not considered in this comparison were the reasons why the students left their school and the students’ performance over time. Looking at these important factors, one can see that the virtual twin is hardly a twin at all.

All of my families have a story, a reason they chose virtual education. John* is a great learner, but easily distracted. Jane* is an Olympic hopeful and trains 40+ hours a week. Kyle* has a 45 minute bus ride to and from school every day. What all of my families have in common is that they left their previous school environment for the same reason: “it did not work for them.”

Quite often, by the time a student has left his school and enrolled in our virtual school, he is already significantly behind his peers. Unfortunately, this study only reports score averages for on grade level state testing. What we do not see in this report is the growth students make on a consistent basis. The traditional classroom’s large class sizes, various distractions, and lack of individualization are just a few of the factors that have kept students from reaching their full potential. These same factors are things the virtual setting addresses well. With our smaller ratio, students enjoy freedom, flexibility and support to not only move at their own pace, but to receive the individualized attention needed to make remarkable gains.

Before coming to our school last year, Kayla* was in a traditional reading classroom of 35 students. Kayla’s teacher realized that her comprehension level was well below her peers. With a large class and limited time, the teacher was unable to give Kayla the individualized attention

she needed to make significant improvements in her reading skills. By the end of the year Kayla was two grade levels behind in reading. The next year Kayla enrolled in the Virginia Virtual Academy. In this online setting, Kayla was able to dedicate more time to reading comprehension in addition to attending weekly, individualized remedial sessions with me. By the end of the year Kayla had made tremendous growth and was on grade level for reading. These gains would not have been possible for Kayla with the limitations of her previous brick and mortar school setting. For me, watching students that were not successful in the classroom thrive in the virtual setting are the most inspirational and rewarding moments in my teaching career.

For some of my students, measurable growth takes longer than a single year to achieve. This study does not consider student performance over time. Studies have shown that the longer a student stays with K12 the better they perform. In a report published by K12, students enrolled three or more years in grades 3-8 achieved higher proficiency in math (14 percentage points) and reading (19 percentage points) compared to students enrolled less than one year.

Jennifer Schultze's picture

Socialization in Online Schools

As a mother of five and a teacher for 16 years -- seven of that being an online educator -- I have seen how important social lives are to the development and growth of students.  In fact, one of the most common questions that I’m asked as a teacher in an online school is: “Do your students have social lives?”

My answer to that is a resounding YES!

There is a common misconception that students enrolled in online school programs lack socialization opportunities. However, many people are shocked to see the amazing opportunities we offer students in both face-to-face and online settings that completely debunk that myth.

Last year, as a music teacher at Wyoming Virtual Academy (WYVA) I had an incredible opportunity to meet with about 35 students from around the state at the University of Wyoming where we got to explore instruments from Bali, Indonesia. Students learned directly from a ‘Gamelan Orchestra Master’ which was fantastic.   Not only did students learn and have fun, but they also got to meet others around the state who loved music as much as they did!

Many people are also interested to learn that WYVA has a ski club which I lead. We meet several times a year, help students learn how to ski, cover safety skills as well as survival skills in winter weather, and just have fun spending time with each other. 

Other WYVA activities that I’ve been a part of or led over the year include:

  • Delivering Valentines cards and cookies to the local Veterans Home
  • Christmas caroling at the nursing home in town
  • WYVA Pumpkin Carving Contest
  • School field trips to the Oregon Trail, Fort Laramie, Battle of the Little Big Horn and other areas around the state
  • Visits to the State Capitol to meet the Governor
  • Back to School picnic with students, parents, and teachers from around the state
  • 5k Run for School event simultaneously done in 15 different cities around Wyoming
  • Field Trip to the local law enforcement building
  • Study time and pizza for final exams
  • Visit to local Fish Hatchery and Cattle Ranch
  • Celebrate the Arts Day and WYVA Talent Show – hosted online
  • Weekly Music Club online meetings
  • National Honors Society 



Ana Berry's picture

Giving Thanks as an Online Educator

I was recently speaking with fellow Louisiana Virtual Charter Academy (LAVCA) colleagues about hobbies and I couldn’t help but marvel at the differences among us – the things that put a spark in our eyes. One teacher enjoyed hunting, another trained for marathons, while I enjoy painting.

We are all uniquely different.Our conversation made me think about our students at LAVCA and all of their differences. We serve so many uniquely brilliant students throughout the many K12 partner schools…there are artists, athletes, academics. As an educator, it is such a treat to get to know my students year after year and uncover their talents.

During the month of November, teachers have a habit of asking students what they are thankful for, which are then used to fill turkey feathers with their thankful thoughts. Most are thankful for family and friends. Some are thankful for chocolate and weekends. Others will put their favorite sports teams on all the feathers. If we were to ask some teachers what they are thankful for, I am sure we might get similar answers as well.

I’m thankful to teach in a virtual school that values the diverse learning needs of students.

I’m thankful that students are able to work at different times during the day so they can also explore other creative outlets and uncover passions.

I’m thankful that we have a curriculum that helps students modify their learning so they can move quickly or slow down to truly comprehend a topic.

I’m thankful for the flexibility that allows for frequent social outings, virtual student clubs, and virtual story times.

However, if I had to sum it all up into one, what I am most thankful for is that our virtual schools give students the opportunities to be uniquely brilliant in their own special ways.