Increasing number of online high schools allow students, school districts to branch out

Saturday, September 29th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MONTE VISTA, Colo. (AP) _ The first cyberstudents the Monte Vista School District took in had been kicked out of school and wore radio-transmitter ankle bracelets so the police could track them.

Most were in Denver, about 150 miles and a world away from the tiny southern Colorado school district of 1,400 students near the Continental Divide.

Officials in the district, one of the state's poorest, had hoped online education could bring in badly needed money by expanding high school instruction beyond the classroom walls.

Seven years later, the district's On-line Academy lists 78 names on its students page. Those living outside Colorado pay $1,800 a year if they have computer access and $2,400 if the school provides the computer; in-state tuition is covered by the state.

Forty other school districts in Colorado have followed Monte Vista's example, and hundreds more nationwide now offer online high school classes that students otherwise might not have been able to take. Some, like Monte Vista's On-Line Academy, even have a full curriculum and diplomas.

Those who have been involved in the Monte Vista program believe in it.

``Both of our daughters went through it and got tremendous scholarships at Colorado College and the University of Colorado,'' said Roger La Borde of Alamosa.

Sig Kutter, a retired university physics lecturer who has worked with NASA, said he started teaching online from his Breckenridge home because he was bored with retirement.

``This has given me a great deal of satisfaction and commitment,'' Kutter said. ``My students have been extraordinarily motivated.''

The National Center for Education Statistics has no numbers on how many students participate in online classes.

``Online education is growing too fast to track. We are predicting widespread shortages of qualified online teachers,'' said Robert Tucker of InterEd, a consulting firm that researches education markets for colleges and universities.

Tim Snyder, who set up the Monte Vista program while superintendent there and now runs the Colorado Online Schools Consortium, sees online education as one answer to the nation's growing teacher shortage.

``We can capitalize on the talent of our master teachers who may have retired from the traditional setting,'' he said.

Parents and schools should see it as another tool for education, but not as a silver bullet, he said.

It is unlikely that more than 20 percent of potential students could benefit from online education, said Dan King, who runs the Choice 2000 virtual charter high school in Perris, Calif.

``I see a lot of kids are missed by the education system for whatever reason. Online education really is for many of those, but not all of them,'' he said. The students need to be motivated, he said.

Most online education is done with teachers and students communicating by e-mail when convenient. Most students take a class or two, Latin or advanced physics for example, which may not be available in their districts. Only a few, including King's school and the Monte Vista On-Line Academy, award high school diplomas.

King's school tests students at monitored sites to prevent cheating. Snyder said online teachers also have ways to tell if students have cut-and-pasted their homework from Web sites.

The standards for online education vary from state to state. California and Colorado require online schools to keep track of ``seat time,'' which amounts to records of e-mail traffic and discussion logs.

Choice 2000 tries to replicate the traditional classroom experience by requiring students and teachers to be online simultaneously. Students can hear and see the teacher, who has an icon on the desktop for each student. When students want to ask a question, they click on an icon.

La Borde and his wife, Pam, home-schooled their two daughters because they thought public schools were too compartmentalized and ignored the student's creative side.

``In my opinion, you have to be motivated to benefit from online education,'' said their oldest daughter, Angela La Borde.

``I liked it partly because I didn't have to wait for teachers to answer the questions of kids who didn't understand the material. And because I could work at my own pace, it left me with more time to do what I wanted to do outside of school,'' she said.

Glenn Russell of Australia's Monash University, an online education authority, worries that online education relies too much on parents supervising their children and that students aren't getting the social skills they need online.

``We hear that a lot, but our experience is that it is not as big a deal as thought. Most kids have developed their social skills by the time they reach high school,'' said Alan McFadden, director of the Monte Vista School District's On-Line Academy, a virtual high school.

Angela La Borde said she regularly interacted with others her age outside of school through dance classes and sports.

``I don't feel I missed anything,'' she said.