Nevada Families Thank Their Lawmakers

On February 28, 2013, families with kids in statewide online schools in Nevada held their Capitol Day in Carson City. They toured the capitol building and learned how a bill becomes a law. The kids looked hard to try to see the three bullet holes the tour guide told them were in the Lincoln portrait that hangs above the Assembly chamber.

Students, teachers, and parents filled the state Senate gallery and were recognized from the floor. One of the parents, Linda Lord, of northern Nevada was welcomed as a guest of Senator James A. Settelmeyer.

The Superintendent of Public Instruction, James. M. Guthrie, joined the group for lunch as did a representative of the State Board of Education. The AASA Nevada Superintendent of the Year for 2013, Caroline B. McIntosh, also spoke to the families.

I was honored to share some thoughts on the power of sharing our experiences as parents who choose school choice, and was thrilled to meet so many happy parents and children who learn online every day like my kids.

Children wrote notes to their lawmakers and families delivered them during visits that gave them a chance to thank legislators for online learning opportunities.

Just across the street from the Capitol, a granite monument marks the spot of the Pony Express station. It says:

“The first westbound trip left St. Joseph, Missouri on April 9, 1860 at 7:15 PM. It arrived here on April 12 at 3:30 PM. Carson City was now only 9 days from receiving eastern correspondence.”

Now, the children of Nevada enjoy the option of full-time statewide online school in another wave of innovation and daring. Kudos to Nevada for embracing this way of learning and making it available to the nearly 7500 children currently enrolled and others yet to come.

Great things are happening in digital learning in Nevada.

Let’s talk about broader school choice

by Wendy Howard
Published by RedefinED

Editor’s note: Wendy Howard is executive director of the Florida Alliance for Choices in Education, which includes a broad range of school choice organizations. The views expressed here are her own and not that of FACE.

Four years after my daughter Jessica Howard began a petition drive to make it easier for students to access virtual education in Florida, she is still not eligible for the virtual provider of her choice. No wonder so many parents settle for learning options that may not necessarily be the best option. There is so much bureaucracy and public attack if a parent merely wants more choice.

As a parent advocate, I have met many parents who are desperate for just that.

One told me her child wrote a suicide note after severe bullying at her school, but fortunately everything turned out okay after they found another option. Another couldn’t transfer her child to a virtual school – despite severe allergies – because of the “seat time” restrictions that were in place at the time. Instead, she had to access a district’s “hospital homebound” program, which cost taxpayers an exorbitant amount of money.

In other cases, parents have children who are failing in the system, or are far ahead of the system, or are pursuing athletic or professional careers that require some reasonable flexibility with academic schedules. There are endless reasons why some families want to choose schools outside of their traditional zoned school, or prefer Option X to Option Y, or want to mix and match those options so their kids can thrive.

All of those parents and their stories have made me wonder: Why can’t we just let all parents decide? Why are we limiting their choices?

Why not all parents, all choices?

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Parent blog: Why we chose an online school

by Tillie Elvrum

In celebration of School Choice Week Tillie Elvrum, parent of Colorado Connections Academy high school student, says online school has been a lifesaver for her son and family.

Nine years ago, I became a school choice advocate. My son’s local school wasn’t meeting his academic needs and I knew that I had to find an alternative. After much research and deliberation as a family, we decided to enroll my son in a public online charter school. My son is now a sophomore and in his eighth year as a cyberschool student.

We have always loved the flexibility of cyberschooling. The ability for my son to work at his own pace has helped him to master concepts before moving onto other areas. The mobility allowed through cyberschooling has enabled us to visit many of the places he has studied over the years. What better way to learn about Gettysburg than to take our laptop and schoolbooks and visit the actual site?

After eight years of online school, my son is a true digital native. This virtual learning environment has even influenced his career aspirations: he plans to pursue a career in the video gaming industry. This career field is still emerging and ever-changing, and his online charter school can provide relevant experience for him that a traditional classroom just can’t match. At the same time, I know he’s being prepared academically for his future beyond high school. His online high school offers engineering design, video game design, and web design courses. Before he graduates he will have the opportunity to take 3D art, digital arts, and other cutting-edge technology courses. He’s learning skills and getting an inside peek into the technology that he will be using in the workforce of the future.

But my son’s classes are much more than electives – he also gets the foundational classes equally imperative to succeeding in the real world. These classes are all the more “real” because they are online. In this day and age, many of society’s planning and decision making take place on some sort of online platform – from email to multi-continent Skype calls. We do everything from checking our bank accounts and paying bills, to scheduling appointments, applying for college and jobs and buying groceries online.

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Memory of Tragedy Shows March of Technology

by Rose Fernandez
National Parent Network for Online Learning

This week in 1986, I was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison working on a master degree in nursing.  One morning I went to the medical library between classes.  Just as I was walking through the turn-style leaving the library in a hurry to walk to class, I overheard something from a student on his way in about the Challenger blowing up.  I had to wait to get back to my apartment later that afternoon to find out what had really happened and how.

This memory reminds me of just how much learning and going to school has changed since I paid my own tuition.  These days my husband and I have two sons in college, so paying tuition and getting our money’s worth has taken on new significance.  Exponential increases in that tuition bill aren’t the only things that have changed from mother to sons.

I registered in person for my classes back then standing in long lines and running from one end of the campus to the other to get signatures that allowed me to enroll in each one.  Just registering took the better part of a whole day.  Finding midway through that one course was closed meant everything might need to be changed, so the hunt for signatures started all over again.  My boys register online in minutes.

I didn’t have a computer of my own.  There were “computer labs”, but those were mostly for computer science majors.  No one I knew used a computer for “word processing” as it was called.  I wrote my whole thesis on a typewriter.  It was top-of-the-line since it had a ribbon cartridge that could be changed to a correction tape cartridge every time I made a typing mistake.  Each revision to the text meant typing the whole thing over again.  I went through a lot of those cartridges.

My notes were on mountains of index cards that sat next to the mountains of Xeroxed journal articles that were some of my sources.  I had found each of those journal articles in index books at the medical library.  The index sent me to the journal stacks to locate each journal issue.  Then I stood in line at the copy machine and spent a nickel a page on the several hundred articles I needed for my research.  I carried them home and left them there, so all of the writing had to happen in one place and depended on having just the right page at hand.

My thesis work back then was as different from how a student writes one today as the difference between how I learned the details of the news that day and how we do today.  News then was just on TV or radio.  There were only landline phones, so reaching out to others had to wait till you found a payphone or got home.  There were no smartphones with twitter and Facebook and the worldwide web.  There was no online anything, no sources, no indexes, no spellcheck.  There was no cut and paste or saving your work to revise and print later.  There were no personal computers in dorm rooms.

Lots of learning happened before the internet age, but it happened more slowly.  College kids today can accomplish more in an hour with a laptop than I could in a day.

One memory of a tragedy that is seared in the mind draws points for comparison and the differences are stunning.  Whether today’s schools and educators are embracing the revolutionary tools of online learning to benefit all learners is unfortunately variable.  In many cases, teachers may have new tools to aid their work, but students are banned from online resources during the school day.

Many kids are in schools that still function much like they did in 1986, maybe most of them in our urban high schools and grade schools.  That has to change.  Holding kids back from all that learning can be in 2013 is also a tragedy.


Celebrating School Choice by Learning

by Rose Fernandez
National Parent Network for Online Learning

School Choice Week, January 27 – Feb 2, is just around the corner.  Hundreds of public activities will highlight the value of school choice for children all around the country.

On January 25, a Jonas Brothers concert in Phoenix will kick off the week.  From there, a Whistle Stop Tour will take the message from Los Angeles to New York City with stops in 14 cities along the way.  One of those stops is in my hometown of Milwaukee.   My children’s statewide online charter school, the Wisconsin Virtual Academy, is one of the sponsors.

I plan to attend the Milwaukee event with other parents from our Wisconsin Coalition of Virtual School Families.  We know school choice firsthand.  School choice is personal for our families because every day we see the difference our alternative schools make for our own kids.  We’ve stood up, over and over again, for our schools when opponents in Madison and elsewhere set their sights on us.  Through our advocacy, online instruction is included in our state teacher statutes and open enrollment is now available year round in Wisconsin public schools.  Tens of thousands of children are the beneficiaries.

School Choice Week is a time to educate and celebrate.  Many examples of how school choice changes lives will be shared and many supporters will be part of the public events.

Other families and teachers will be like some I’ve invited to join me at the Milwaukee event.  They won’t be able to join the crowd.  They won’t make a sign or go home with a School Choice Week yellow scarf.  They will be busy doing what they do every day.  They will be learning.  They will contribute to School Choice Week in a humble way and by doing so demonstrate the dedication of choice families and teachers to getting the job done every day.

It is important to remember that the work of school choice is in our charter school classrooms and in our homes where children, teachers, and parents put in the effort every school day to help learners achieve.  Maybe those busy learning will get a shout out, or better yet a whistle, along the Whistle Stop Tour.


Physical Activity and Digital Learning: Two Peas in a Pod

by Michael Horn

What’s digital learning got to do with physical activity?

Quite a lot I believe.

A couple weekends ago I had the privilege of presenting at TEDx Manhattan Beach where I heard another presenter, Dr. John Ratey, speak about the importance of physical exercise in increasing brain plasticity and boosting student learning. His book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, details the connection.

Although I normally write about digital learning’s potential to transform our education, as a Crossfit enthusiast myself, I believe in the importance of living a healthy life with physical exercise.

One of the biggest misconceptions about the rise of online learning is that a student’s schooling will be spent primarily in front of a computer, with a student clicking away relentlessly as though she were playing eight hours of video games a day.

This couldn’t be further from the truth, however, if the rise of online learning fulfills its potential and creates a truly student-centric education system—which should be the ultimate goal.

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Schools win when teachers, parents work together

by Rose Fernandez
National Parent Network for Online Learning

The new movie “Won’t Back Down” is an engaging story about a single mother trying to find a better school for her dyslexic daughter.  Clearly, it has hit a nerve. The country’s teacher unions are in full outcry. Despite their indignation, unions are not the issue here. The real issue raised by the film can be put very simply: When a child is trapped in a school that is failing her, she is in a failing school and responsible parenting means finding a better alternative.

A few nights ago, I went to see “Won’t Back Down”.  It focuses on a dedicated teacher who shows her fellow teachers that things can improve and that they can be more effective as teachers if they partner with parents. Collaboration truly can change our schools, combined with the ability to choose your child’s school.

Parents and children must have school choice freedoms. Open enrollment, the ability to enroll in a school outside residential boundaries, allows parents to make a deliberate, thoughtful decision every year about where each child should go to school. Children should no longer be held prisoner by a street address. They must have the option of enrolling in the school that best meets their learning needs, whether that school is a traditional brick and mortar public school, a private school, a charter school, or a full-time online school.

No matter the option chosen, parental involvement is critical to school success. Our part in raising the bar for both teaching and learning begins with raising expectations and working together respectfully with school professionals. That kind of collaboration can improve the learning environment for children. This requires that professionals be open, responsive and equally respectful of parents and their concerns.

Unfortunately, in many schools, when parents ask for a change to help their child, they are too often treated like unwanted interlopers instead of potential partners. So like children, parents don’t want to “go to the principal’s office.” Parents feel like outsiders there.

When parents ask for changes, parents become a “problem.” When we say “what you are doing for my child isn’t working,” we aren’t thanked for our insight or commended for our courage. We are soothed. We are patronized. We are contradicted. And we are told that we just don’t understand.

There is also sincere fear of retaliation. “Won’t Back Down” includes a scene where an angry teacher locks a child in a janitor’s closet. Fear of retaliation too often freezes parents. While physical retaliation like the incident portrayed in the movie is rare, parents are just as intimidated by teachers’ complete power to single out children in class or give undeserved low grades.

It’s time to change “the principal’s office” syndrome. Parents asking for help need to be heard and respected. We must also have the information and access required to help our children do their best.  Collaboration requires earnest cooperation on both sides.

Educators say parental involvement is vital to a successful school. More learning will happen when that means more than helping with homework and showing up for parents’ night. Our schools need us to be more than PTA cheerleaders. Parents need a forum where we can provide feedback on instruction without fear of reprisals.

We don’t need to take over schools. But we should be as welcome when we question as when we praise. And we should step up and do both.

High quality education requires parental collaboration with dedicated teachers and options that give us alternatives when our local school fails to meet our child’s needs. Whatever choices parents make about where and how children are to be educated, they have a right and responsibility to be part of the process. On that we should take a lesson from the new movie title and each resolve that we “won’t back down.” Our children need us to work together.


States, Districts Require Online Ed for High School Graduation

by Kelsey Sheehy
US News & World Report

While adult interest in online courses at the college level appears to be waning, enrollment in virtual classes at the K-12 level is on the rise.

Nearly 620,000 students took an online course during the 2011-2012 school year, up 16 percent from the previous year, according to an annual reportreleased this week by the Evergreen Education Group, which works with schools to implement online and blended learning programs.

The number of states and school districts requiring online courses for high school graduation also grew, as states aim to teach students how to operate in a an increasingly digital world. Lawmakers in Virginia and Idaho signed legislation in the past year requiring students to take at least one online course in order to earn a high school diploma, and the governor of Minnesota signed a law in May that “strongly encourages,” but does not require, students to take an online course before graduating from high school.

AlabamaFlorida, and Michigan already have laws on the books requiring virtual education for graduation, and school boards in multiple districts have enacted similar provisions, includingMarietta City Schools in GeorgiaMemphis City Schools andPutnam County Schools in Tennessee, and the Kenosha andCedarburg School Districts in Wisconsin.

For officials in those states and districts, requiring online courses for graduation is a necessary step toward college and career readiness.

“The reality is, when a student leaves us, whether they’re going to a four-year college, a technical college, or going into the world of work, they’re going to have to do an online course,” Kathleen Airhart, deputy commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Education, told Education Week last year while she was director of Putnam County schools. “This helps prepare the students.”

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Student Chooses Online Learning to Succeed

by Rose Fernandez
Getting Smart

For some kids, an online school is their school of choice. That was true for Emily Boucher, the 2012 valedictorian of the Wisconsin Virtual Academy. Her hometown newspaper recently called her, “Burlington’s ‘Other’ Valedictorian.”

Emily was in traditional high school, a very good high school, with her twin brother when she went to her parents with an unusual request. She wanted to learn at home in a full-time, online public school. She thought she could learn more and learn it more quickly if she could work in her own way at her own pace.

Emily’s parents agreed, but due to enrollment restrictions, they could not transfer their daughter to the public school of their choice for more than a full school year. Emily’s resolve, despite roadblocks, and her success should inform decision-makers, like state legislators, who can change out-dated laws that keep children from the school that can make learning happen for them.

Emily is a young woman who chose to walk an unusual path and in doing so she widens that path for others who are following her. Her reason was simple. It was the best thing for her. That should always be enough.

Emily earned much more than excellent grades and a shot at her dreams. Emily earned the respect of those who advocate for public school options, like online schools, and for removal of arbitrary limits on access. We must hope that her simple choice and her fortitude in making it happen will make school choice easier for others.

Godspeed, Emily, at University of Wisconsin- Madison and beyond.

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