The sometimes alternative to brick-and-mortar
Craig Mulcahy Photographs
Laterrio Dickerson Jr. wants to be a veterinarian when he grows up, but first he must learn to use a laptop without pecking at the keyboard.
He is only 9 and in the fourth grade, but keyboarding skills moved up the importance list in October when his mother enrolled him in an online school. Until then, he had attended a regular face-to-face school in Gentilly.
Now he meets his teachers and classmates via a webcam and submits his lessons electronically from the family’s glass-topped dining table meant to accommodate six. On any given day the table is covered with colorfully illustrated textbooks and workbooks. Safety glasses, a magnifying glass and test tubes for science and molding dough for art class also take up space on this make-do desk.
When Laterrio began to be bullied in the third grade, his mother, Dimonique Wilkerson, tried working with school officials to solve the problem. She also contacted the bullying child’s mother, but neither resolved the aggressive behavior against her son.
Transferring to a different school isn’t easy after the fall enrollment period, Wilkerson says, so she turned to Louisiana Connections Academy, a virtual school of 1,800 students chartered by the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and headquartered in Baton Rouge. Like most people, she didn’t know virtual learning was possible for public elementary children, but her mother learned about the program through a television advertisement just as Wickerson began scouting for a new school.
Now Laterrio is one of thousands of K-12th grade students nationally and internationally who attend accredited schools via the Internet.
“I like it a little good,” Laterrio says. “I like this better because I don’t like getting bullied.”
About 18,000 students are home-schooled in Louisiana, the state department of education website says, but parents must develop curricula and pay for costs related to the learning process. Parents who enroll their children in Louisiana’s two virtual public schools, however, get all the benefits of free, accredited public education while reaping the benefits of applying it in the home-environment.
“It’s a nice compromise,” says Glenda Jones, lead principal of LACA. “We get quite a few students from the high school environment. Parents like the accountability.”
Children attending LACA and Louisiana Virtual Charter Academy take all state required student performance tests, such as LEAP. They also earn a Louisiana high school degree, just as students who attend “brick-and-mortar” schools, the term used by virtual educators to distinguish the web-based schools from the traditional classroom models. They are just two of the specialized charter schools that have opened up in recent years as the school choice movement has swept the globe.
International Connections Academy enrolls 50,000 students nationally and internationally, Jones says. The school’s delivery of K-12 education to any geographic location meets the demands of technologically advanced and highly mobile societies. Online schools allow child actors to be schooled while working and allows family members to travel with working parents without sacrificing quality education.
One set of parents in Louisiana, for example, had the opportunity to sail around the Panama Canal this year, Jones says, and were able to do it because of the availably of virtual schooling. They plan to reenroll their children in their previous brick-and-mortar school when they return from the sailing adventure, she says.
Most parents have more practical reasons for choosing online education. Jones says that many parents choose LACA because nearby schools are academically weak or because their children have health issues. Another large group of parents choose online education for safety reasons such the bullying problems experienced by Laterrio.
Via the web, Laterrio takes instruction in language arts, math, science, social studies, arts and music, education technology, speech therapy and study skills. Several times a week he attends live sessions by way of webcams with teachers and other students, but mostly he reads textbook assignments, takes quizzes and submits written work on his own.
Wilkerson, his “learning coach,” stays in touch with teachers to monitor his progress, submits attendance sheets and does a good deal of prodding.
“Keeping him on task is a major thing, partly because he’s this young,” she says. “There are times when I come home, and he has done his live lesson but he hasn’t turned in his other lessons and he’s watching TV. Then I have to fuss.”
Wilkerson, who attends college on Mondays and Wednesdays and works as a bakery manager on weekends, must leave him working on his own sometimes, but she’s able to monitor his daily activities through telephone connected internet. She monitors his electronic grade book and keeps track of what lessons are due, submitted and overdue. On the final Friday of October, Laterrio’s Daily Planner showed that he had submitted 33 lessons, but three were overdue.
LACA provides opportunities for children and teenagers to meet and interact with the intent of duplicating the traditional school environment as much as possible. Students take field trips to theaters and museums and attend prom-like parties, ring and graduation ceremonies, but sometimes they miss a regular school anyway.
Wilkerson says that the instruction Laterrio currently receives is more advanced than what he was getting at the face-to-face school. On the other hand, virtual learning can’t replace the socialization students enjoy in a safe, onsite school environment. In the spring, she plans to find a suitable brick-and-mortar school. “He misses interacting with other children,” she says.
Jones says that it isn’t unusual for students to go back and forth between school types. Virtual learning, she says, “is not for everybody.”