GISELLE, an aspiring ballerina, took Illinois Virtual High School (IVHS) courses during her junior year and the following summer in order to graduate early and spend what would have been her senior year touring the country with her ballet troupe. (1) Now, having graduated from her high school, she is taking IVHS Advanced Placement classes to improve her chances of getting into the college of her choice.
Leslie missed all her courses in the second half of her sophomore year because she was pregnant. She was highly motivated to get her diploma but had a lot of courses to make up, a baby to care for, and no money for child care at night, when her school offered credit-recovery courses. In her junior and senior years, she took courses through the Michigan Virtual High School (MVHS) half time in addition to her regular courses. Thanks to the flexible scheduling of MVHS, she was able to do the coursework while caring for her baby and graduated on time, with honors. She is currently enrolled in a community college and plans to finish her college degree by taking courses part time.
A quiet and slightly built youngster, Sidney was a social outcast among the tough, macho youths in his classes and was consistently bullied and harassed. Despite the inhospitable environment for learning, he managed to complete all the necessary courses for high school graduation except one English course, which was offered at his school at night. His mother, fearful of the youth gangs in the area, refused to let Sidney attend night school, so he enrolled in the English class through the Florida Virtual School (FLVS) and is completing the work from his home computer. He is scheduled to graduate with his class.
IVHS, MVHS, and FLVS personnel confirm that these are not isolated success stories. Rather, they are typical of the reports coming out of these programs, as well from many of the other 19 statewide virtual schools around the U.S. (2) Students venture down the electronic paths of an online-learning cyberworld so that they may better negotiate the increasingly complex and demanding real-world terrain of contemporary life.
Virtual schools--programs that offer regular school courses in distance-education formats--slipped onto the American education scene under the radar of most educators about a decade ago. Utah's Electronic High School, FLVS, and the Concord Consortium's Virtual High School began operations in the mid-1990s. Today, many people may still not be aware that virtual schooling is one of the fastest-growing areas in K-12 education. In its 2005 report, the National Center for Education Statistics found that, as of 2003, 36% of U.S. school districts had students participating in virtual courses for a total of more than 300,000 students. (3) And this number is projected to explode in the coming decade.
Many students enroll in online programs to take advanced courses or to accelerate the pace of their study, as Giselle did; many others seek credit-recovery courses like those that allowed Leslie and Sidney to earn their high school diplomas. But there are a variety of other reasons as well. Students turn to virtual schools when their own school lacks the resources to offer the courses they want or need, or when physical handicaps or disciplinary problems prevent them from attending a face-to-face classroom, or simply because they want the flexibility--or sometimes the invisibility--that they feel virtual courses offer. Home-schooled students are also a growing part of the consumer base for virtual courses. So why, in light of their obvious popularity and value, do many policy makers, educators, and parents view virtual schools with suspicion that approaches alarm?
Objections both political and philosophical surround the topic of virtual schools. Claims and counterclaims swirl around issues of funding, credit, certification, and even whether or not the whole idea of learning without the teacher and student being in the same room is socially desirable or morally acceptable. …