BOSTON — While hundreds of thousands of students across the country attend virtual public schools, New England has been slow to adopt the high-tech education model as states weigh how to manage the schools and judge their performance.
There are 310,000 students in full-time public K-12 cyber schools in 29 states across the country, but less than 800 of them are enrolled in two schools in New England. Ohio itself has more than 35,000 students in cyber schools, according to October 2013 statistics from Keeping Pace, a nonprofit focused on online learning.
The schools have shown inconsistent academic results, however, and some have been criticized for working with for-profit groups to provide curriculum and other services. The concerns have led to strict rules in Massachusetts and a proposal to ban virtual charter schools from opening in Maine for a year. Connecticut, Rhode Island and Vermont do not offer full-time online schools.
Michaela Grady, 14, of Pittsfield, Mass., enrolled at the Massachusetts Virtual Academy at Greenfield this fall as she trains to become a competitive freestyle ice skater. She said she is able to do school work while commuting the hour and a half to and from practice in Connecticut and also while at the rink.
“The flexibility has made me less stressed and more focused at practice and in my school work,” said Michaela, who said she has trained with Olympians competing in Sochi, including Russian gold-medal winners Elena llinykh and Nikita Katsalapov.
The school, which opened in 2010, is the only one in the state. The state school board will decide next month whether to approve a second virtual school, TEC Connections Academy, in Dedham. The K-12 school would open in the fall and the state education commissioner has recommended it be approved.
After a change in the law last year, the state now has the power to oversee and regulate virtual schools, rather than individual districts.
Luis Rodriguez, director of the office of digital learning for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said that the stricter regulations – including a limit of three new cyber schools a year in the state – have deterred many from launching virtual schools.
There is one virtual high school in New Hampshire with less than 140 students, while two virtual schools are seeking approval in Maine, although a bill advancing through the Legislature would ban virtual charter schools there until January 2015.
Students at virtual schools use online curriculum and are guided by teachers through email, video chat and at times in an actual classroom. Students are sometimes unable to attend traditional brick-and-mortar schools due to pregnancy, medical or emotional barriers, bullying, or competitive sports or the arts.
Only 1 percent of K-12 students nationally are currently enrolled in full-time online schools.
While full-time public virtual schools are held to the same academic standards as traditional public schools – including state accredited curriculum, teachers and assessment tests – many opponents fault the schools for partnering with for-profit companies to provide coursework and software.
“They (virtual schools) are private schools being funded with public money, with no accountability,” said Maryelen Calderwood, vice chair of the Greenfield School Committee, which oversees public schools in that district. “We do not know what is going on at these schools.”
In Massachusetts, districts are required to pay about $6,700 in tuition for each student in the schools. The average cost to attend a traditional public school is $10,350, according to state records.
While advocates say the data on virtual schools is lacking, especially in tracking a student’s academic growth, the executive director of Massachusetts Virtual Academy said that people are critical because the idea of cyber education is relatively new.
“It is about breaking down barriers,” Carl Tillona said. “They are helping children. That’s all that matters.”
Susan Patrick, CEO and president of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, said it’s important for students to have a range of options.
“If virtual schools can work as a lifeline for a child or protect a child’s future – it is worth doing and exploring,” said Patrick, who previously worked for the U.S. Department of Education. “It should not matter if an organization is for-profit or not, as long as they are helping children progress academically.”
Michaela’s mother, Kimberly Grady, said that she was at first hesitant to send her daughter to a virtual school, but has found that “what she does in the virtual school is much more rigorous.”
But she said that the schools are not for everyone.
“It works for the student who has the motivation to do it,” Grady said, “and if she didn’t have the skating to drive her she wouldn’t be getting straight A’s.”