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Virtual school shows potential

The Baltimore Sun

Sixteen-year-old Lauren Davidov is an ace bowler, likes hanging out with friends and aspires to become a sports broadcaster. But about a year ago, the Timonium teen was struck with such severe anxiety attacks that she struggled in the mornings to leave her home for school.

Lauren's mother, Kimberly Davidov, said that when she drove her daughter to Dulaney High School a guidance counselor was often required to help coax Lauren out of the car.

The school adjusted Lauren's schedule, including eliminating her final class of the day and allowing her to do the work at home. Still, the mornings got harder, and Lauren's grades plummeted.

"She's a nice, normal kid," Kimberly Davidov said. "She just needed something different to help her get through school."

That something is the Baltimore County Virtual Instruction Program, an online school that the system began testing in the fall. The pilot program - which is being coordinated with Connections Academy, a Baltimore-based company that is providing administrators, teachers and materials for free - has 106 students enrolled. Nearly all of them, with a few exceptions such as Lauren, are home-schoolers.

Confident of virtual instruction's potential, school officials are requesting $2 million from the county in the coming school year's budget to hire their own teachers and staff and to nearly double the program's enrollment.

In launching its pilot - believed to be the state's first virtual instruction program - Baltimore County joined a national trend of public school systems offering more online education options. The movement has gained momentum in the past five years, with at least 15 states offering some form of virtual schooling, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Baltimore County school officials said during a recent school board meeting that anecdotal information suggests the students are poised to do well on state standardized testing that begins today.

In Lauren's case, her grades have rebounded since she started the online program, her mother said.

Next school year, the system plans to continue to use course materials provided by Connections Academy or another online educator, said Dale R. Rauenzahn, the district's acting assistant superintendent for science, technology, engineering and math.

Nationwide, hundreds of thousands of students are taking online classes, and the U.S. Education Department predicts that within the next decade most schools will offer them.

Amid growing concerns about the quality and consistency of online instruction, the North American Council for Online Learning released in February a set of voluntary standards designed to guide states, school districts, online programs and other groups.

A survey of K-12 online schools conducted in 2006 by the Sloan Consortium - an association of institutions and organizations of higher education engaged in online learning - concluded that little information is available on the effectiveness of such online programs. Still, the survey found that issues of instructional quality, costs and teacher training are "resolvable," and mirror the experience of universities when they began offering online programs.

Baltimore County school board members have raised questions about the program, including: How does the school system benefit from enrolling so many home-schooled children? Without evidence, such as standardized test results, how can school officials measure the pilot's effectiveness? And will other companies be allowed to bid for the contract to offer the system's full-fledged online program?

Rauenzahn told board members that enrollment was intentionally limited to the home-schooled population to minimize disruption.

"We were trying to be very conservative. We didn't want to take kids out of our own schools," Rauenzahn told school board members. "Ideally, we see this program as being a complementary program to our Home and Hospital program."

Lauren, an 11th-grader who transferred from Dulaney into the Home and Hospital program two weeks into the school year, switched to the online school in October.

Rauenzahn said online education is best for students who require an extended absence - in some cases an entire school year - and isn't a good solution for students who are expected to be out of school for only a month or so. The system wants to include more students who are home because of medical issues or otherwise need an alternative to a traditional school setting, he said.

The online students - who become public school students and must take all statewide assessments - count toward enrollment figures used to determine federal, state and local aid, Rauenzahn said, which would mean increased funding for a system that has enrolled fewer students in recent years.

But board member John A. Hayden III said any extra funding would be needed to help pay for the program. "It's not adding anything to the equation," he said.

Hayden added that it was important for school officials to ensure a "competitive bidding process." When the pilot was announced last fall, a local advocate for home schooling criticized the arrangement with Connections Academy as an unfair advantage for the for-profit company.

Rauenzahn assured the board that the system's purchasing department will bid the contract.

Connections Academy - which is operating in 14 states, including Pennsylvania, Florida and California - began offering full-time online schooling in 2002.

Last summer, the Florida Department of Education gave an "A" to Connections Academy, which enrolled 700 Florida students during the 2006-2007 school year. Education leaders there based that rating on how its students had fared on the state's standardized tests. In the 2003-2004 school year, when the company launched its program in Florida, it had earned a "C" from state officials.

Connections Academy offers courses for students in kindergarten to 11th grade, and plans to add 12th grade in the fall. Company representatives say that a key to the program is its requirement for a parent or other adult to serve as a "learning coach" who monitors the student's work.

Sitting at a computer in her bedroom, Lauren said on a recent morning that she logs on each school day by 10 a.m. and works until about 2:30 p.m. on assignments for classes such as algebra, English and environmental science. She allows herself a half-hour lunch but no breaks for video games.

She said online school is harder than regular school and requires her to be more conscientious.

"It's kind of tempting to be sitting at home with TV and everything around you," she said.

Kimberly Davidov beams as she describes how the program has helped Lauren catch up on her studies and brought her grades back to mostly B's and A's.

"This has been a terrific program for her," she said. "There's a different air about her. You can tell she feels better about herself."

By the numbers

Highlights of Baltimore County's online school pilot program:

106 students - 100 are home-schooled; six are from the system's Home and Hospital program.

95 percent attendance rate.

4 percent are kindergartners; 21 percent of students are ninth-graders; 2 percent are 11th-graders.

7 percent are special-education students.

45 percent are white and 25 percent are black; the remaining 30 percent are Asian, multiracial or didn't report ethnicity.

41 percent are low income.

35 percent are from the county's northwestern area, including Bedford Elementary, Franklin Middle and Randallstown High; 12 percent are from the central area, including Jacksonville Elementary, Ridgely Middle and Hereford High.

[Source: Baltimore County public schools]

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