In Philadelphia, more than 5,000 students grades K-12 attend a Pennsylvania cyber charter school. That is, they forego the traditional brick-and-mortar schoolhouse for the virtual world, taking classes online.
While more and more people are getting college degrees online, you don’t often hear about grade- and high-schoolers doing their learning in front of a computer. Yet, says Andrew R. Campanella, president of National School Choice Week, these kinds of programs — unlike their higher-ed counterparts, which can sometimes be scams — are all credited, and highly regulated by the state. “It’s a great option for students who want to set their own pace, or whose scheduling doesn’t allow for a typical, 8-to-4, Monday-through-Friday school week,” he says.
In cyber-schools, all direct instruction is provided online or in a virtual environment, but that doesn’t mean there can’t offer extracurriculars or other supplemental services at a physical location. “These schools are absolutely required to meet the requirements of a student's individualized educational program for students with disabilities,” says DawnLynne Kacer, executive director of the Charter Schools Office in Philadelphia. “They are also able to provide tutoring services in a physical location, as well as any special programming, so that would be your arts or your music.”
Yet, the idea of letting a tween or teen take charge of their own education and leave the social environment of the classroom can be, well, scary. We asked Campanella and Kacer what kinds of students might actually benefit from going online.
There are seventh graders who can perform math at a 12th grade level, but most of them aren’t given the opportunity inside the classroom. “I don’t know of any K-through-8s in the city that offer calculus,” says Kacer. In the past, advanced students would have either been bussed to the nearest high school — or college — for classes, taking time away from other subjects. Online learning can allow them to take courses more suited to their level, without the hassle.
The student who excels at one subject but struggles in another
Sometimes a student who can do calculus at age 12 can struggle reading To Kill a Mockingbird, or other books that are often assigned at their grade level. Picking and choosing different classes at various grade levels is one of the upsides of an online education, both challenging the student in the subjects that she finds too easy and giving her specialized, extra attention in those with which she struggles.
The hardcore extracurricular enthusiast
Sometimes a student who is on a certain track — whether that’s to be an Olympic athlete, a concert violinist or a professional actor — has to miss a lot of school, due to traveling, work or training. “It’s logistically difficult for these students to be in the same school building Monday through Friday,” says Kacer. Instead of constantly missing school and being intermittently in touch with teachers about catching up with work outside the classroom, cyber-learning may help give them the kind of stability and flexibility they need in order to complete their education.
The person with an inconsistent schedule
Then there are the students who — because of an illness, a sick relative, a family problem or a job — can’t make it to school because of more-immediate responsibilities, last-minute emergencies or other commitments. Instead of being punished for missing another day of school, they can do their schoolwork on their own time through taking courses online.