The Baltimore County school system plans to test a full-time online school, providing certified teachers and Web-based lesson plans for free, starting this week with home-schooled students.
The Baltimore County Virtual Instruction Program, believed to be the first of its kind in the state, would later be expanded to include students who are at home because of medical issues or otherwise need an alternative to a traditional school setting.
"It's not one-size-fits-all anymore," said Dale Rauenzahn, executive director of the school system's student support services.
While one expert says some home-schooling parents may balk at signing up because of philosophical qualms about using a public school curriculum, the pilot version of the program could significantly change the landscape of home schooling statewide if other districts follow Baltimore County's lead.
The program also gives an unfair advantage to the Baltimore-based Connections Academy, a for-profit company that has agreed to give the district its services free for one year, said Manfred Smith, president of the Maryland Home Education Association.
"There's a tremendous incentive to co-opt the home-school movement," said Smith, who estimates that the state has 25,000 to 30,000 home-schooled children. "This is about seeing an increase in the number of kids beginning to leave the public school system for home schooling ... and to keep them attached to the school system."
The children would be considered public school students and would be expected to take all statewide standardized tests - and would count toward the enrollment figures used to determine federal aid to the school system, which could help pay for Connections Academy's program.
Mickey Revenaugh, vice president of state relations for Connections Academy, said the company generally charges about $5,500 to $6,000 per child. The cost per child would have to be negotiated if the school system decides to adopt the program after the pilot phase.
Revenaugh said the company has committed to educating as many as 200 children during the county's pilot phase. As of last night, 75 children had enrolled, Revenaugh said. Registration continues through the end of this week, she said.
She said students in the program include those who are significantly ahead of or behind their peers; have mental or physical disabilities, such as social anxiety, that make it difficult to attend a traditional school; or must be out of school for extended periods, for illness or other reasons. For example, one student is training to become a professional ballet dancer, which keeps her out of school for long periods of time.
Connections Academy, which is designed for students in kindergarten to 11th grade, requires a parent or other adult to serve as a "learning coach" who monitors the child's work at home. The company plans to add 12th grade next year, Revenaugh said.
"This is really one more choice for parents," she said. "The percentage of home-schoolers who might choose this is pretty small. But for the kids that nothing else works, this is a godsend."
Smith said he doesn't question the quality of Connections Academy's program but worries that the company didn't have to compete for the opportunity against other entities, such as the Calvert School, which has been in the home-schooling business since 1906.
Home-schooling families normally must purchase curricula and materials for their children.
"If Connections Academy thinks it is doing such a great job, why not offer its product on the open market?" Smith said. "Why should taxpayers foot the bill for any number of students who choose to be home-schooled?"
Rauenzahn said the school system is considering several other options, and that school officials met yesterday with a company, which he didn't name, that offers a similar program for children in sixth through 12th grades. But the district is most interested in a kindergarten through 12th-grade program.
He said he would have to consult with the system's purchasing and legal departments to determine whether the district must allow other companies to bid against Connections Academy for a contract.
Rauenzahn said the school system decided to limit enrollment in the pilot to the nearly 2,000 home-schooling families who it must monitor because they aren't affiliated with an established organization. These are students who the district must check on to ensure they have a schedule and are following a structured curriculum, he said.
Connections Academy - which has been adopted in 12 states, including Pennsylvania, Florida and California - began offering its version of full-time online schools in 2002. Revenaugh said that company's partnerships include two state departments of education, Florida and Missouri.
"We're thrilled that Baltimore County is the first Maryland county to look at this. We felt bad that as we've been expanding, we didn't have a school right in our backyard," said Revenaugh, who added that the company wants to offer the program statewide. "They have a pretty well-developed home-school office, but have never offered a way for [home-school children] to be officially part of the school system."
This summer, the Florida Department of Education gave an "A" to Connections Academy, which enrolled 700 Florida students last school year. State education leaders in Florida based that rating on how its students had fared on the state's standardized tests. The rating was a vast improvement on results from the 2003-2004 school year, when Connection Academy launched its program in Florida and earned a "C" from state officials.
"We've made improvements in the curriculum and have been working really hard," Revenaugh said. "If a student stays with it, their performance increases."
Last night, some Baltimore County parents explored the program with representatives from Connections Academy at school headquarters in Towson.
Becky and Dwayne Shifflett of Middle River decided to home school their son Dwayne Jr. after finding that a full day of kindergarten would be too much for the 5-year-old, who has health problems.
"This gives me a chance to keep on top of his work and see how he's doing," said Becky Shifflett, adding that she might continue to teach her son at home if the program works well for him.
Cheryl Cresic of White Hall said her 15-year-old son has been enrolled in an online high school since last year, when he left the public school system. Cresic said she is delighted that the Connections program is free, because she paid about $2,000 for a ninth-grade online curriculum through Keystone National High School.
She added that she is glad that enrolling in the program means that her son will be a Baltimore County public school student again.
In an interview before last night's session, Rauenzahn recalled a recent conversation with a parent who asked what would happen if she and her child decided two weeks into Connections Academy that they didn't like it.
"I asked her, 'What are you doing now? Home schooling. What will you do after two weeks if you don't like it? You'll be home schooling,'" he said. "We're not forcing anybody to do this."
Sun reporter Julie Scharper contributed to this article.