First let’s address what the Virginia Virtual Academy is not. It is not homeschooling, at least in the traditional sense. If you are enrolled as a VAVA student you are enrolled in a public school. Your identification as a homeschooler is limited to location. You complete your work from home but you are responsible to comply with any and all of the expectations given to other public school students in the state. This includes compulsory attendance laws and required standardized testing. With regard to attendance, the parent is responsible to enter attendance hours daily and to specify how much time was given to each subject from the curriculum. The curriculum was designed with the knowledge that states require specific attendance hours and so it provides enough student work to fill that time. For example, if a first grade homeschooled student can complete their work in two hours, they may need double that in order to complete the K12 curriculum. There is also a requirement to put together work samples that are sent to a certified teacher monthly. It is the parent’s responsibility to mail these samples. This represents a proof of progress and also gives the teacher insight on the child and his or her strengths and weaknesses. However, the most important thing to be aware of is that every VAVA student will be required to comply with state standardized testing. In Virginia that would mean SOL’s and during testing season parents will be responsible to transport their children for several days to one of a number of testing locations around the state.
I had the opportunity to interview the head of school for VAVA, Suzanne Sloane. She was gracious and answered all of my questions and I discovered that VAVA is a unique member of the K12 family as a result of the intricacy of Virginia State Education Law. The academy that I taught at in Pennsylvania was a stand alone institution. It functioned as a charter school which is essentially its own district with its own school board and is measured against other school districts with regard to its test scores. The home districts of each student enrolled were required to send approximately 80% of what they would normally spend to educate the student directly to the Virtual Academy. The district would retain the remaining 20% for overhead costs as well as the option for those students to still take part in extra curricular activities such as sports and music. Virginia does not allow for a school to accept state money that is not part of an existing school district. Therefore, VAVA is a part of the Carroll County Public School system. VAVA’s students are officially enrolled in that district though they have no real contact with Carrol County teachers or ever set foot in one of their buildings.
The situation gets more complicated by another law that limits a district’s population that can be served by a virtual academy to 10%. Therefore, VAVA has a cap on enrollment that for most other K12 schools does not exist. To solve this problem K12 is working to try to partner with other individual districts in order to keep enrolling students. Patrick and Buena Vista are two districts that have signed on with K12. However, due to the 10% limitation, both of these districts combined only allow 250 students to be added to VAVA’s rolls. K12 is trying to secure more districts to partner with in order to allow additional enrollment at VAVA. There has been some controversy, with critics saying that the state is spending more of its money to educate these K12 students than students in brick and mortar schools around the state. These critics are seeking to put more restrictions on K12 in its quest to expand.
As a former K12 teacher, I consider this aspect of VAVA, its limited enrollment, a major positive. The school where I taught grew by thousands the first year. The school’s response to this staggering growth was to keep hiring additional teachers. This meant that the school itself was constantly in a state of flux, new students and new teachers being added constantly, sometimes on a weekly basis during busy enrollment seasons. The school was put in the position of always reacting and adapting rather than feeling prepared. I believe that this caused instability. Rising class lists of students and parents unfamiliar with home instruction put pressure on the limited resources, namely the teachers. This resulted in a higher rate of teacher turnover which only added to the strain on those who stayed behind. The fact that VAVA is being forced to grow gradually, I believe, is a positive for students who are able to enroll there. Families will receive the attention they are seeking and the school will be able to plan ahead for growth rather than being overwhelmed with an exploding student population.
Practically, life as a VAVA student would be familiar to the traditional homeschooler who is used to a structured schedule. That schedule is flexible as long as all the work that is required each day is completed. The parent is still the one working one on one with their child but it gets tricky. In order to accept state funds, the certified teacher is supposed to be the one responsible. That means each K12 family is accountable to their child’s teacher. VAVA instructors check attendance, provide weekly opportunities for online instruction, grade student work samples and they will ask students to complete regular diagnostic testing so that test scores will go up. VAVA is under a unique pressure in this area as their students scores will impact the district to which each student is assigned be it Carroll, Patrick, Buena Vista or future K12 collaborators. Some may want this, especially those with a special needs child. Being a public school, VAVA is required by state law to provide any services required by a child’s IEP including assigning that child both a regular and special education teacher. There are also some families currently homeschooling on their own that want or feel that they need all the accountability a K12 school would provide.
There are some other considerations. Parents will have no flexibility as far as curriculum. Students will need to do what is provided and will likely not have time for much else. The curriculum is very rigorous. I found it to be very complete and I can vouch for the fact that a great deal of excellent research went into its development. The positive is that everything is spelled out for you and of course everything is free, down to the computer they send so students can complete their online work. The down side is any creativity or interests outside the curriculum will need to be curtailed. As a teacher this was difficult to overcome because expectations for students completing the curriculum were not relaxed even when additional requirements were made due to pressure to raise test scores. One of the things that remains frustrating in regular public school is that curriculum is often put aside in order to teach the test skills. K12 is asking that parents facilitate their child learning the curriculum but also doing additional things in order to increase test scores, because the school’s fate is based on the No Child Left Behind policy. At the K12 academy where I worked I was required to enforce monthly Scantron testing and participation in a test preparation online program called Study Island. I monitored each of my students as to their compliance with these services in additional to their attendance hours, daily curriculum progress and work samples. A similar expectation for VAVA students was confirmed by Suzanne Sloane when I spoke with her.
Most of the parents I worked with were not prepared for the amount of work that students were expected to complete. To be fair, a lot of these parents had their kids in traditional schools so they weren’t used to working with their children at home much at all. Many of these students also were leaving bad educational situations where they were unhappy or failing and looking for a way out. When they brought their students home the parents quickly became aware of the issues surrounding their child’s lackluster academic performance. Though at home they had the opportunity to turn things around, it would require a great deal of sacrifice. The idea of sacrifice is not new to those who currently homeschool. Though the original base for K12 academies are usually traditional homeschoolers, my experience has found that these parents became frustrated with the restrictions of being a part of a school again and usually decided to go back to doing it themselves. Those who stayed, did so mostly because of the opportunity to save money on curriculum or because they adjusted to a new way of thinking where they felt like they had the best of both worlds, a child that was essentially going to “a school” yet at home.
My intention in providing this information is not to discourage enrollment at VAVA. I think it is important that the information people are receiving is accurate so they can make the best decision for their child and their family. K12 is a for profit company therefore marketing is a huge part of their business plan. I always felt that the school was marketed in such a way that the curriculum was a silver bullet (the company only sold curriculum before they started their academies) and that ANYONE can do this. After watching many families start the year excited and end up either leaving or being asked to consider another option due to noncompliance it became very obvious that not everyone is suited for this option. I will say that if you are excited about the curriculum and would like assistance in a particular area of instruction, especially for High School students who are taking advance Math and Science, there is the option to purchase individual classes with K12 through their online private schools, specifically the K12 International Academy and The Keystone School.* Using K12 curriculum this way would allow homeschooling families the opportunity to retain their full independence while also getting additional support of a teacher to instruct, grade work and provide feedback based on their expertise in a subject that parents may find intimidating to tackle on their own.
As for me, I taught in a public school for six years and at the K12 virtual academy for four years while my husband was in medical school. When we moved to Virginia my daughter was close to Kindergarten age and I made the decision to homeschool my kids. I have many practical reasons for this choice not just philosophical ones. I have not and will never be anti-school as a rule and I believe that those who choose to make teaching their profession deserve our utmost respect. However, I did not think that a K12 school was the right fit for my family. If I am going to make the sacrifice to be home instructing my children I want to have more control over that education I am choosing to provide. As a K12 teacher I felt restricted by the curriculum, despite its quality. Being creative in lesson planning I always felt was one of my gifts as an educator and I knew that I would be even more frustrated if I was unable to use those gifts with my own children. Also, I wanted, at their young age, to spare my children the stress of the SOL testing season. Yet I recognize that there are families that will find the Virginia Virtual Academy the option they have been waiting for. Every family is different and only they can decide what will best serve their needs. My husband’s training to be a physician gives our family many unique challenges. It has forced my husband and I to give up a lot of control over our life and their dad’s frequent absence often leaves my children feeling insecure. In their little minds and hearts their Daddy’s patients must mean more to him than they do, otherwise he wouldn’t spend so much time at the hospital. Homeschooling has allowed me to provide a sanctuary for us as a family and a way to bring some of that security back. During this season where many things are decided for us we find comfort in the certainty that our educational journey is ours alone.
- Aimee Saunders is a Pennsylvania State Certified Teacher in the area of Social Studies who grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia. After 10 years of teaching by vocation she moved to Charlottesville with her husband so that he could complete his residency at UVA Medical Center. This year marks the beginning of her third year as a Virginian and homeschooling mom. She has a first grade daughter and a three year old son who provide daily the toughest and most rewarding teaching experience she has ever encountered.
* Note: If your child enrolls in an independent K12 course or courses, the parent must supply a computer for the student to use. Currently, the K12 online school does not support the most recent versions of many popular Internet browsers, including Microsoft Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox. Google Chrome and Mac Safari are not supported. The browsers recommended at the time of this writing are Internet Explorer version 7 or 8 and Firefox version 3.6.x. If your computer is running an unsupported browser version, you may have to roll back to a supported version.
You can find up-to-date information on supported browsers and instructions for installing appropriate versions at http://prod-help.k12.com/support-topics/computer-equipment/browsers-and-virus-protection. For more information or technical support, visit the K12 website or call K12 technical support.