A Look Inside the Virginia Virtual Academy

~Submitted by Aimee Saunders
Last year the for profit curriculum company K12 launched the Virginia Virtual Academy,or VAVA. Though K12 headquarters resides in Herndon Virginia, VAVA is a fairly recent addition to a large and growing family of K12 schools throughout the country. I was a teacher at a K12 academy in Pennsylvania for 4 years, therefore, I have an inside perspective and can hopefully bring some clarification to the questions many homeschoolers have about this new player on the educational field in the state of Virginia. 

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.

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4 comments to A Look Inside the Virginia Virtual Academy

  • Amy Wilson

    Wow, Aimee, what a wonderful article you have written! I think your contribution will really help lots of families as they try to understand the Virginia Virtual Academy and decide whether it might be right for them. Thank you!

  • Sonya

    There are a few inaccuracies in your blog. Most of them I believe are due to the differences between how the VA you taught for worked and how VAVA operates in Virginia, or changes from the time you researched to the time you published. It is, however, nice to see a fairly neutral informational post regarding VAVA on a homeschool website. I have homeschooled my girls since part way through my 8th grade daughters Kindy year, my youngest two have never been in a brick and mortar school. I’ve used K12 as an independent user and last year enrolled my oldest in VAVA. This year all 3 of my girls are enrolled. The reasons are independent to each family and have no bearing on the rest of this reply.
    1) VAVA is actually in its third year this year, not second. Last year it grew in popularity. In my opinion the negative press had more to do with this than any marketing or special mention by the governor.
    2)regarding work samples – last year there were monthly work samples that had to be faxed, mailed or K-mailed (an internal email system) to the students teacher on a monthly basis. This year all of the work samples will be taken from Study Island, an online program aligned to the state standards in each subject. Each grade has certain sections that have to be done on a schedule, writing samples for upper grades will be copy pasted into this program and submitted. Younger students will still be required to fax/mail/kmail hand written writing samples.
    3) flexibility – there is still quite a bit of flexibility for the savvy parent. Assignments can be altered, course layout rearranged, days scheduled off, block scheduled, field trips taken, reading substituted etc. Not every parent will be comfortable taking charge in this way, but the options are still there. And of course, it’s best to work with your child’s teacher, but it can be done. There are also many whole lessons, and portions of lessons that are optional. My daughters all still have time to take outside courses and extra curriculars. It is a heavy course load and is academically rigorous, and sometimes hard to see the forest through the trees (or the objectives through the busywork), but after the initial learning curve of the program, things fall into place nicely.
    4) Test Prep – as you noted (and I mentioned) students are expected to utilize Study Island. We have to log at least 20 minutes on Study Island each day. My oldest hates Study Island and will do her requirements in “test mode” to get it done as quickly as possible. My younger two love Study Island and complete their work in “game mode”. Personally I find this ongoing exposure to multiple choice testing a lot better than the last minute cramming most brick and mortar schools do. As SOLs neared there were more online study sessions geared directly towards the test. Last year they were optional but recommended. This year it is my understanding that they are required – if you cannot make the live session you have to view the recording and there is a survey type link you need to fill out to prove you viewed it. Grades 3-8 are required to do Scantron testing in the spring and in the fall and grades K-2 are required to do Dibels reading assessments 3 times in the year.
    5) Only 3-8 graders take SOLs. The tests are administered at various locations around the state. Approximately 6-8 weeks before testing a survey is sent to families listing potential test sites and families are instructed to select 2. We are then told which location to test at. Depending upon your location and options, the test site will be between 1 & 2 hours from your home. Testing takes place over the course of two days in most situations. If I remember correctly, Herndon area had a 4 day test window. 5th & 8th graders are also required to take the writing SOL in March in addition to the subject SOLs in May.
    6) Cost – VAVA is only free if you live in one of the sponsoring counties or qualify for the free lunch program. If you do not live in one of these counties and do not qualify for free lunch, then the fee is $500 per student per year with a family cap of $1000 per year. To the best of my knowledge, unlike other states – VAVA does *not* supply families with computers. We certainly didn’t get one and a local acquaintance of mine who qualifies for fee free was also not offered one.
    7) Expectations v. reality – One problem for my family and several that I know is that while the K12 curriculum can be individualized, you lose some of that with the VA. With K12 marketing it’s courses and curriculum as being self directed and allowing you to get the next grade level when you complete your current grade – the reality is that this is extremely difficult within the red tape of the public school system. The *curriculum* allows for it, but the bureaucracy of being an enrolled public school student will make it difficult. They also are not able to provide as many and varied courses as they would like to. Part of this is because Virginia State Law requires that all public school teachers be certified to teach in the state of Virginia. So if there are students who have advanced past the 8th grade curriculum into specialized subjects, they have to find a VA certified teacher to deliver that course. There are 4 students that required geometry this year – not enough to hire a geometry teacher, so they had to find a teacher to deliver that content, but that teacher also had to be certified to teach in Virginia. The same for foreign language – there were 25 students (I believe that is the number Ms. Sloane told me) who needed high school level foreign language. But with students wanting different languages and without funding for a dedicated teacher- they had to search the K12i teachers for someone certified to teach in VA. Her Spanish teacher lives in Washington.  I don’t know how difficult it is to get certified in different states, but from a parent perspective it is frustrating to find a solution that works for your student and family and then be told you may not be able to continue because your child is advanced (or special needs, or …) and red tape is in the way.
    8) Speaking of teachers – we have been blessed. My older daughter has the same “homeroom” teacher this year as last. It is nice to have someone who is familiar with our family and with my daughters learning situation. Last year we were required to have monthly phone conversations with the teacher. Honestly, I felt this was a waste of time. She spent a few minutes telling me things she had already K-mailed about, then asked if I had any questions or concerns. For me, normally this answer was no. She then went on to the next parent. What they are doing this year will work better I think. This year there are monthly “grade level” conferences in Elluminate. Students are grouped K-2, 3-5, 6-8. Families then log in to Elluminate and receive information that pertains to that grade group and have a chance to interact with other parents. This saves the teachers from repeating the same information in every phone call and allows parents to “meet” each other. The K-mail system does not allow the parents to contact anyone other than administrators or teachers, so it can be very isolating to not have anyone doing the same thing you are. Our one on one conferences are now scheduled for every other month and the entire time is spent focusing on your child. I have read on some forums about communication issues with teachers. Thankfully this has not been my experience. Both the homeroom teacher for my older daughter, and the homeroom teacher for my younger two are wonderful women who make it very clear that they are there to support me if I need it, willing to (or already have) go to bat for my kids, are quick to offer suggestions on making the curriculum work for each student, and know when to back off if it’s evident I am comfortable with what I’m doing. It’s the kind of relationship parents wish they had in brick & mortar schools – one of mutual respect and aiming towards the same goal.

    Thank you again for your informative and generally neutral article about a controversial method of schooling.

  • Alessa

    according to a friend of mine who is doing k12, it is $250 per child for the whole school year if out of disctrict.

  • Jannice Walker

    I am writing because I just enrolled my four kids in this for this upcoming year in grades 6th , 5th , 4th , and 1st. I did so because I have researched k12 before and liked what I saw. But now I am having second thoughts due to a site my friend’s friend found with some very awful reviews. http://www.homeschoolreviews.com/reviews/curriculum/reviews.aspx?id=180 .. I take my kids education very seriously , and want to make sure I am making the right choice. I was promised by the K12 reps that they would be able to work at their own pace , and I could switch them out of classes if the teacher sees fit whether it be to a more challenging one for my gifted an talented child or , lower if needed for my 1st grader who struggles with reading still. If I do not like what is being done , do you think I could just drop out of the program. Here where I live in v we still have to turn in an NOI form or letter even if we do this. At least that is what I was told.

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