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Public funding launches virtual school for K-8

The program, which begins in September, will provide home-based, computer-assisted schooling for up to 1,000.

Published August 2, 2003

Public school parents who have entertained notions of homeschooling will have a publicly funded opportunity beginning Sept. 2.

The Florida Department of Education on Friday awarded $4.8-million in contracts to K12 Inc. and Connections Academy, two private companies that are supposed to provide home-based, computer-aided public education for as many as 1,000 students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

Under the terms of the contracts, participating families will receive computers, software, subsidized Internet access and complete curriculum packages aligned with the state's educational standards.

Faced with a statewide epidemic of crowded classrooms, legislators earlier this year approved launching the K-8 virtual school in a pilot form at a taxpayer cost of $4,800 per student. That's $724 less than the state's average per-pupil expenditure, but $1,300 more than students get for private school vouchers.

Only students enrolled in public school in the 2002-03 school year, or kindergarteners and first-graders who meet the state's age requirements, are eligible to participate. The state's 44,500 homeschoolers are ineligible.

"I think we're looking at a new world," said J.C. Bowman, director of the Center for Education Innovation at Florida State University and former director of school choice for the state Department of Education. "I think you will see some percentages of students (participating) who before could not afford to homeschool."

Enrolled students will have to take the FCAT in grades three through eight. And the companies are required to reimburse the state $4,800 for every student who doesn't show a year of academic growth.

K12 Inc. was founded in 1999 by former U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett with a $10-million investment from former junk-bond king Michael Milken. The Virginia company already serves about 7,000 students through virtual charter schools in 11 states.

Connections Academy is a Baltimore company that was started two years ago by Sylvan Ventures. Like K12, Connections has found its niche primarily in serving charter schools. Mickey Revenaugh, a vice president with the company, said it expects to have more than 2,000 students enrolled this fall.

Publicly funded, computer-based curricula is not new to Florida, but it is new to students as young as age 5.

The online Florida Virtual School has been supplementing course work for homeschoolers and public school students for years at the high school level, and more recently in the middle school grades. But those students do not typically use the Florida Virtual School for their entire curriculum. Students will with the new K-8 pilot.

Mark Maxwell, the chief financial officer for the Florida Virtual School, said his program was never intended to serve students in the younger grades, and he doesn't expect the new K-8 pilot to affect the public school's offerings.

"It would be difficult to instruct a student who can't read yet over the Internet," Maxwell said.

Skeptics of computer-based instruction often criticize virtual learning for elementary-age students.

Gene Maeroff, the recent author of A Classroom of One: How Online Learning is Changing Our Schools and Colleges, said self-motivation is key to student success in programs such as the Florida Virtual School.

"These youngest children don't have that much learning experience, and this is asking a lot of them at a very young age," Maeroff said.

Officials with both K12 Inc. and Connections Academy say their classes for young children are more dependent on parents than they are on computers.

"We don't have kindergarteners spending all day in front of a computer," Revenaugh said.

Learning materials such as math manipulatives, clay, books, paper and pencils are an important part of instruction in both companies' programs, they said.

Both Revenaugh and K12 Inc. executive Charles Zogby estimated kids in the early grades spend about 10 to 15 percent of their time in front of the computer.

The virtual K-8 pilot program also assigns a Florida-certified teacher to each student to keep track of pupil progress, participation and to offer parental support.

Both companies are conducting information sessions throughout the state for interested parents. Connections's next meeting nearby will be Wednesday at the Collier County Public Library in Naples. On the same day, K12 will be in St. Petersburg at the Holiday Inn-Heritage at 324 3rd Ave. N.

[Last modified August 2, 2003, 02:02:50]

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