Elizabeth Milton supervises as her children Gryphon, 9, Rainbow and Flower, both 8, work on their school work at their home on Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday. The curriculum, books and equipment are all supplied by District of Columbia Public Schools. (Mike Morones / Staff)
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Each morning, Air Force wife Elizabeth Milton and her three children eat breakfast, then the kids get ready for school and are in the classroom by 8 a.m.
But for third-grader Gryphon, 9, and second-grade twins Rainbow and Flower, 7, school doesn't even require them to leave their home on Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, D.C.
They attend the Community Academy Public Charter School Online, a virtual public school.
"We don't have to pay anything," Milton said, noting that the school provides books, computers, art supplies, even science tools. "It just all comes to the door."
Milton and her husband, Air Force Staff Sgt. William Milton, are among a growing number of parents both in and out of the military who are turning to virtual online schools to provide some or all of their children's education.
Some use the option for just a class or two to fill gaps in required credits resulting from recent moves, but some use virtual schools full time from elementary through high school.
The latest data available, for the 2009-10 school year, show there were about 1.8 million course enrollments nationwide in distance-education courses mostly online in K-12 school districts, compared with about 40,000 to 50,000 a decade ago, according to the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, known as iNACOL.
That's not the number of students but the number of enrollments in classes so if one student is enrolled in three classes, that counts as three enrollments.
The Department of Defense Education Activity has gotten onboard, as well; its fully accredited virtual high school has 1,249 course enrollments mostly students taking one or two classes to supplement courses they take in regular DoDEA schools.
Thirty-four states have state-led virtual school programs, and 18 have full-time online learning programs, according to iNACOL. About 70 percent of school districts offer at least one online course to students. There are also private virtual schools that require tuition.
Public virtual schools whether associated with a school district or part of a charter school get funding from their states for each student who attends.
Their online learning programs may be managed by a state, school district, university, for-profit companies or other institutions. Teachers must be certified, meet state standards and be trained in online teaching methods.
Techniques vary. Students may watch a teacher lecture or explain problems in real time, perhaps asking questions by message during the class; they may simply see a blackboard as the teacher works problems and explains them through audio; or they may watch recorded lectures. There may be independent study, too.
Public virtual schools conform to state standards and go through accreditation procedures.
Accredited schools' course credits are generally accepted by other school districts and by colleges, though military children traditionally have had some difficulty transferring credits even between brick-and-mortar schools when moving from state to state.
For highly mobile military students, the flexibility of virtual schools is very attractive, said Susan Patrick, president and chief executive officer of iNACOL.
Military parents "should consider and know about virtual schools as an option especially for credit enhancement or if there are credit challenges," said Mary Keller, president and chief executive officer of the Military Child Education Coalition.
Flexibility is a big part of the appeal for the Milton family.
"We're migratory. We can take this with us," said Elizabeth Milton. "You never know where the military will send you."
Through the virtual school, she was easily able to continue her children's study of German, which they had begun while stationed in Germany.
Families need flexibility for other reasons. Jerry Elvrum, who retired from the Air Force as a master sergeant in 2001, and his wife, Tillie, enrolled their son J.D. in a virtual school in Pennsylvania affiliated with Connections Academy because he was having problems in a brick-and-mortar school related to his learning disability, which affects his memory.
"He just needs more time to learn new concepts," Tillie said. "He was frustrated. After a while, he felt he was being punished."
She said Connections proved to be a good fit for her son because it gave him a little more room to work at his own pace.
Over the past eight years, the Elvrums moved to Ohio and Colorado but kept J.D. in schools affiliated with Connections Academy. J.D., now 16, is a high school sophomore who has done well on all of his state tests, his mother said.
KaShaunna VanDyke's two sons, ages 6 and 10, began attending virtual school in Georgia, while the family was stationed at Fort Gordon.
The boys now attend Agora Cyber Charter School, run by K12 Inc., the largest for-profit operator of virtual schools, in Philadelphia. She and her sons are there while she helps care for her grandfather, who is recovering from a stroke. Her husband, an Army sergeant, is stationed at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., and they plan to join him in June.
She says her kids get "the same quality of education they would get in a brick-and-mortar school, if not more."
More states are requiring students to take at least one online course to graduate. But some experts say students who attend virtual school full time tend to not perform as well academically as their brick-and-mortar peers.
"Having 100 percent of the learning experience online is not the most effective way to educate youngsters," said Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. "They need the supervision of teachers. To put them in a virtual school without associating with other students or teachers is not desirable."
"But I'm a lot more concerned about mobility and transiency," said Kevin Welner, an education professor and director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "The bigger issue is [the schools'] failure to retain kids."
If a full-time online school doesn't work out, transitioning a child to a regular school can be "really disruptive," Welner said. "That school year has been thrown for a loop."
The association advocates a blended approach, with courses at a school setting, as well as at home online.
There is also the potential for social isolation for children who attend virtual school, particularly those who are full time.
But parents interviewed by Military Times noted that their kids' virtual schools arrange for and provide a variety of field trips and gatherings for students.
And "just being on base, there are lots of opportunities for socialization," Elizabeth Milton said.
Third try's the charm
Navy wife Katrina Villarreal said the blended school at Hawaii Technology Academy has been the best option for her daughters and has saved the family the cost of private school. The girls just finished their Hawaii state tests at HTA and did well.
Because HTA is a public charter school, "they'll get a Hawaii state Department of Education school transcript, just as if they were in a regular school," Katrina Villarreal said.
HTA is the third education option she and her husband tried in Hawaii for daughters Fallon, 13, and Aurora, 9.
The girls attended public school for six months after arriving in Hawaii in 2009, but "we didn't feel our children's needs were being met," said Villarreal, whose husband, Danny, is a Navy chief electronics technician on the submarine Charlotte.
Then the girls attended private school for a year at a combined cost of $25,000.
At HTA, the girls take classes at home online, as well as at a learning center.
Villarreal said she has been impressed with the teachers, all state-certified, and that the school addresses the social needs of students with a variety of peer activities.
"I really enjoy this school," said Fallon, who is secretary in the HTA student government. "I like to go at my own pace. I can get help from my mom and teachers at the learning center. They make it one on one for you."
‘Don't be afraid'
Dan Zazworsky, a 17-year-old high school senior with a 3.91 GPA, is a virtual school veteran.
He has taken virtual courses from the Defense Department's virtual school while also attending brick-and-mortar schools since eighth grade.
He's now taking a virtual class in American government, along with a full load from his brick-and-mortar school, Black Forest Academy in Germany.
Black Forest Academy offers a U.S. curriculum, but it doesn't offer some courses "that we felt were important for his overall education," such as American government and economics, said his mom, Monica Zazworsky.
Because there is no DoDEA high school in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, where his father, Air Force Col. John Zazworsky, is stationed, DoDEA pays for him to attend the private school through its Non DoD Schools Program.
Students can attend the DoDEA Virtual High School, which follows all DoDEA curriculum standards, if they are eligible for stateside DoD schools, overseas DoD schools or the NDSP.
DoDEA has had a distance-learning program since the mid-1980s, which became the DoDEA Virtual High School in the 2010-11 school year, said Terri Marshall, the school's principal.
Students must have space in their DoDEA school schedule for virtual classes. There may be 10 students in a classroom under the supervision of an educator, but they could be taking 10 virtual courses.
"If there's a dedicated class period, they seem to be more successful," Marshall said, adding that "students still have to be prompted to work at times."
"Don't be afraid of it," Dan Zazworsky advises potential virtual students. "As long as you're dedicated to taking the class, it's not too scary."
Finding the right fit
Experts say more successful virtual students are motivated self-starters; proactive; independent learners; and advocates for themselves.
If students "don't want to put in the effort, they will struggle," said Patrick, president of iNACOL.
Parents should spend time visiting local brick-and-mortar schools, which vary in their offerings, before choosing the full-time virtual school option, said Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center. That includes meeting teachers and sitting in on classes. They should take a similar approach to choosing online options, he said, learning how cyber schools operate.
Some things to consider:
Will your child thrive in the virtual school environment? Consider your child's personality and work habits and motivation.
How are progress and work monitored?
Is the school accredited?
How are classes conducted? Ask to see examples. Do you want your child to have a lot of interaction with teachers and with other students in the online class? If so, ask how that is accomplished.
Are social activities and field trips arranged for students? How often?
How do a school's student test scores compare? "The critical benchmark is still the performance of students," said Domenech, of the American Association of School Administrators. Check scores on tests made public, not just whether the school made the federal Adequate Yearly Progress goals, he said.
Do parents have easy access to their children's grades and progress reports?
What student support such as academic support, counseling, tutoring and technical help is offered? If your child has special needs, ask for details on how the school can accommodate them.