Omaha Public Schools are set to open an online program meant to appeal to homeschooled students. Called Virtual Learning School, the project offers the state's first district-run online courses.
The courses, which include both core subjects and electives, will be offered for free to students in grades K-8. Each student will receive a laptop on which to do their work from Omaha Public Schools (OPS) which will have to be returned at the end of the school year.
Students must also be dual-enrolled in OPS and sign up for at least two classes. Those classes will be held at the DoSpace Metropolitan Community College classrooms once a week and will be supervised by a virtual instructor, student learning advisor, or social worker. Students must also attend a three-hour orientation and various field trips, family socials, and collaborative opportunities.
The web-based software and curriculum will be provided by K12 Classroom LLC, which has recently dealt with controversy, according to Erin Duffy of the Omaha World-Herald. The company allegedly engaged in misleading advertisements and inflated attendance numbers to get more state funding. The company admitted no wrongdoing, but agreed to pay the state of California $8.5 million.
The online school will be available beginning this month. So far, it has received more than 180 applications, and enrollment will be capped at 300 students for the first year. The classes begin on August 17th, according to the schools' website, and it is recommended that interested students apply before that start date.
Online courses for high schoolers are already available for a fee from the University of Nebraska High School.
In Nebraska, there are more than 8,000 homeschooled students, which numbers about 2.5% of the state's children, reports Ben Bohall of Net Nebraska.
Wendy Loewenstein, director of the new program, has been holding informational sessions for parents. She said:
"I believe strongly that a school isn't just about the building, it's about the students. Not every student can find success in a traditional school environment, and our school will be providing another option for families to explore."
Between 2003 and 2013, homeschooling in the US increased by more than 60%.
Some concerns that have been raised about the Virtual Learning School include the lack of parent control over the curriculum — which is a central reason that many parents homeschool — and questions about the efficacy of online learning.
Michael Barbour, director of doctoral studies with the Farrington College of Education, says that the effectiveness of online learning depends on how it's used and who uses it. It may be better used as a supplement rather than a full-time learning plan. He said:
"There are just some students who aren't going to be engaged by that. In much the same way that some students aren't going to be engaged in a face-to-face classroom. The difference is in a face-to-face classroom a teacher can look around and recognize when they've lost their students. And a good teacher can make accommodations for trying to re-engage that student, where a computer can't."