'Virtual schools' gain popularity in Duluth

Maria Vespa
In this Dec. 3, 2009 photo, Maria Vespa eats a mac and cheese lunch while working on her geography test at home, in Duluth, Minn. Vespa and her sister Anna both attend a "virtual school" where they take all their classes online.
Bob King/Duluth News Tribune via AP

With the radio playing softly in the background and munching on spoonfuls of noodles and cheese, Maria Vespa sat at her family's kitchen counter to take her geography mid-term on a recent afternoon.

The 15-year-old stared intently at her computer screen as test questions popped up. She'd study each for a minute, take another bite of lunch and click on an answer. When she got stumped, she pulled out her notebook.

"That's one of the great things about online school," Maria said. "You get to use your notes when you're taking tests."

Another great thing about online school: instant grades. A few moments after Maria answered the last test question, her score popped up.

"I got a B," she said. "I would have loved an A, but a B is still pretty good."

Maria, one of five children in the Vespa family, has been going to virtual school for three years. The experience takes students outside traditional classrooms and plops them in front of computer screens - at home or any place else - where they read lessons online and interact with teachers and sometimes other students via chat rooms.

The number of students in the Duluth area enrolled full-time at an online school is small - about 1 percent in the Duluth school district - but it's on the rise.

During the 2005-2006 school year, 25 students attended an all-day virtual school. This year that number is 92, making virtual schools the third biggest draw for Duluth students behind the Hermantown and Proctor school districts, according to Tom DeSutter, student enrollment monitor for the Duluth school district.

Duluth Superintendent Keith Dixon said he expects to see the trend continue.

"We see this happening not only here but in other districts," Dixon said. "It's sort of a state and national trend right now, and I guess I don't see it just stopping."

Maria is already on her second school - Minnesota Virtual High School - after encountering problems with teachers' turnaround time on questions at her first online academy. Despite that glitch, the ninth-grader said she likes it.

"I like having the freedom to go do other things when I want to and not be restricted to a daily schedule," she said. "It's a lot better than public school where girls were mean and cliquey; I hated that."

She said the experience does not limit her from making friends or getting involved. She has met a lot of people through church, where she is in a drama club and a Bible study group. She even recently went to a school dance.

"I am a social person, so I like talking to people, and I feel like I still get to do that," she said. "I still meet people."

Maria's sister, Anna, who also enrolled in virtual school, has a different take on the experience.

While Maria was taking her geography test, the 13-year old Ann sat in the family's living room lounging on the couch in gym shorts and a fleece sweat shirt. She was also "at school," with her laptop opened to an online math lesson.

"I hate it," she said about going to school online. "It was different for my sister because none of the girls were really nice to her, but I never had that problem. All of my best friends are at school."

Anna transferred to Minnesota Virtual High School from Hermantown Middle School this year after her parents bought her a horse. The deal was, if she got the horse, the aspiring jockey had to take care of it. The flexibility of the online schedule allows her to get over to the nearby ranch where it's boarded a few times a week to do that. But Anna said she misses her friends, extracurricular activities and the structure of traditional school.

"It's harder for me to concentrate like this," she said. "I'll be doing an assignment and I'll want to go on Facebook or do something else. Plus, it's all reading, and I hate reading. I like being shown what to do instead of having to read what to do."

The experience seems to have compromised her education a little bit, Anna said, because it doesn't require her to memorize information for tests the way traditional schools do. She also said teachers aren't always as helpful when they're not instructing you in person.

"Sometimes I'll ask a question, and they won't give me the right answer," Anna said. "I will keep trying to ask but without being able to show them what I'm talking about, we sometimes just can't get anywhere. Then I just end up saying OK and pretending I understand."

The difference in the sisters' experiences is not uncommon, according to Bruce Munson, associate dean for the College of Education and Human Service Professions at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

"The perspective is that this does appeal to a certain kind of student, particularly those who do not feel included in a typical school setting for whatever reason," Munson said. "Also for those who are more rurally located; the options provided by a virtual school might work really well for them."

Aaron Doering would add self-motivated students to the list, but he said the appeal is growing even wider. Teen moms, for example, have been enrolling in virtual schools because of the flexibility it allows them as parents.

Doering, an instructor at the University of Minnesota's Twin Cities campus, trains education students to teach online.

"We are going to see more and more students enrolling in these online schools because of ease of accessibility," he said.

As the numbers grow, the teaching methods and involved technologies must evolve to allow for more collaboration between students and teachers, he said. When that doesn't happen, it can lead students like Anna to feel isolated and for some to drop out.

"We have seen such a quick movement to online learning that the preparation for teachers to know how to do it hasn't always kept up," Doering said. "It should no longer be responding to questions in a book online. If you're teaching about climate change, bring in someone from the weather channel to discuss it with students online. ... If you do it right, you can get students collaborating with experts and students around the world."

Even the Duluth school district has ventured into the virtual world. So far it has only held a couple of video classes for students scattered in different buildings around the district, but the district hopes to expand its offerings down the road, Dixon said.

Meanwhile, he said, the district doesn't view competition from virtual schools as a threat.

"There are multiple reasons students come to school in addition to academics," Dixon said. "To be with their friends, to participate in activities, to be a part of all the other things that are so important to a high school experience. We are in a unique position to provide all of those things."

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Information from: Duluth News Tribune

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