Online education in Arkansas for free?
What does the Arkansas Virtual Academy mean for Pat Rippetoe of Rogers?
It means her eight-year-old, Seth, can still attend school in spite of snow days and the occasional illness. It means the child’s education can be tailored around his family’s schedule – rather than the other way around – to an extent. It also means the child is held to the same standards as other children attending Arkansas public schools.
Oh, and Rippetoe doesn’t pay a dime to send eight-year-old Seth to Arkansas Virtual Academy, either.
Intrigued? A lot of parents in the Natural State certainly are. Scott Sides, head of school for Little Rock-based Arkansas Virtual Academy, said there are 500 students in kindergarten through the eighth grade attending the school and 1,000 more on the waiting list.
Sides explained that the Arkansas Virtual Academy is chartered by the state and is part of the public school system. The state Legislature has capped attendance at 500 students, but Sides said he hopes that cap will be raised in the future.
As things stand now, Sides said the school is funded by state and federal money just like other public schools and students attending it are held to the same standards as children going through the more traditional educational system. Arkansas Virtual Academy has state-certified teachers and textbooks just like other schools, but the school is different by definition – students typically interact with their teachers and other children through the Internet.
“We have a classroom,” he said. “It’s just within an electronic platform.”
Of course, some hardware is necessary for all students wanting to attend Arkansas Virtual Academy. That hardware is provided to students free of charge, Sides said.
Rippetoe said the Virtual Academy has been a boon to Seth for a number of reasons. She said the flexibility of it all is a blessing. If, for example, a student is great at history but struggles with math, then less time can be spent on the former subject and more on the latter.
Sides was quick to point out that students enrolled in Virtual Academy aren’t allowed to simply skip subjects – students take the typical benchmark exams and, as such, are required to show a certain amount of mastery of all subjects required by the state. However, there is enough flexibility for students to spend more times on the subjects that are more difficult than others.
Rippetoe said that flexibility is important as students are individuals and the Virtual Academy is designed to provide students the level of attention each one needs. That flexibility, she said, even extends to physical requirements – what about a child with, say, asthma who misses a lot of school due to illness? What about those children who have trouble with eyesight and need special accommodations to receive an education?
Such conditions – and others – are dealt with well by Virtual Academy, she said. Rippetoe said she also appreciates the way students meet with teachers online and go over lessons. She said the program does require a good amount of parental involvement, or at least the assistance of an adult willing to put in the time to help a student learn.
The Virtual Academy, she said, relies on students having an adult around who will help them complete their lessons. That is a considerable investment of time on the part of that adult – parents who work 40 hours a week may, of course, have trouble making that required commitment.
Rippetoe said she’s a former classroom teacher and, as such, does know a thing or two about methods used by educators to help children learn. She’s able to help Seth in that capacity, but said the Virtual Academy doesn’t simply leave it up to parents to provide educations for their children. Those parents or adults assisting children are given complete lesson plans and are guided by teachers who work for Virtual Academy.
Rippetoe said she’s heard the complaint that children going through programs such as the Virtual Academy don’t get the advantage of socializing with other children in a classroom setting. She said that argument doesn’t have much merit as the Virtual Academy does plan field trips and there are plenty of online clubs and activities for students enrolled in the school. Besides, she said things have changed a lot for children over the years in Arkansas. We’re a long way from the time when children met other students primarily through scouting, a couple of organized youth sports leagues, church and school.
Children today have more opportunities to take part in community events and, as such, can stay very involved with other kids. With the amount of youth activities available, Rippetoe said, the importance of sitting in a classroom to be “socialized” has diminished.
Rippetoe said the Virtual Academy isn’t ideal for all children, but neither is the traditional public school system. It’s not a matter of which system is better or worse at all – it all comes down to increasing the number of choices available to children and their parents.
“I think each family need to have a choice and decide what’s best for their family,” she said, adding that some parents will choose traditional schooling and others will be interested in online education. “I think online schooling is going to expand in the future.”
Sides said he hopes online schooling does expand, adding that he is hopeful the Legislature will allow for more than 500 students to be enrolled in the Virtual Academy one day. He refused to say when he thought that cap might be raised, but hopes the performance of students in the school will impress lawmakers enough to let other children in the system. Also, he said the Legislature will allow the school to expand past the eighth grade one of these days.
The effectiveness of the school is still measured, partially because it is fairly new to Arkansas. Sides said the model for the Virtual School was first piloted through the state Board of Education and operated from the start of 2002 through federal grants. In 2007, the Virtual Academy was chartered by the state.
Sides pointed out, again, that students are held to the same standards as other children in the public school system, adding the group at Virtual Academy has performed well on state-required performance testing. He said the effectiveness of the school is proof the system works, adding he hopes the Legislature agrees and allow more students in the system.
Sides, like Rippetoe, said the school isn’t ideal for all children. However, those children who would thrive in that system should have the chance to participate.
“We don’t want to leave anyone out based on chance,” he said, explaining that the names of students wanting to attend Virtual Academy are put into a lottery system and picked at random.
Rippetoe said she also hopes to see more children in the system. It requires a commitment of parents and others who take the time to help children through the system, but Rippetoe said she’s been thrilled to have more time to spend with Seth.
“The benefits outweigh the time spent,” she said. “It’s worth it.”
Click here for more information about the Arkansas Virtual Academy.
Benton resident. Rogue journalist. Recovering attorney. Email = Ethan@FirstArkansasNews.net.