THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

First virtual school in Mass. opens Thursday

By Lyle Moran
Associated Press Writer / August 31, 2010

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BOSTON—On the first day of the school year, some Massachusetts students will be staying home.

As students in the state's first online-only public school, they will log onto a computer and find out what books they need to read and what new skills they should master.

The Massachusetts Virtual Academy opens in Greenfield on Thursday, not only as the first in the state, but also as the first virtual school in New England to serve students from kindergarten through high school.

At virtual school, the students will take all of their classes online and have a learning coach make sure they complete their assignments. A parent could be certified, for instance, to be the learning coach.

The student can work anytime of day and some may never see their teachers in person.

Greenfield Superintendent Susan Hollins said a small fraction of students find the size and fixed structure of traditional schools unworkable for them, adding "I'm delighted to spearhead something that opens doors and provides another opportunity for children and parents."

Greenfield officials believe 10,000 to 20,000 students in Massachusetts could benefit from a virtual school, but the school is limited to 500. Nearly 200 students were registered last week for the fall. School officials expect enrollment this first school year to reach 250.

Jeff Schneider of Longmeadow said his children, 10-year-old Max and 8-year-old Lily, will attend the school. Max has attended a private virtual school for two years, which allowed the boy to go at his own pace, Schneider said.

"My kids will be able to go faster in the things that come more naturally to them and go slower in what does not come naturally to them," Schneider said.

Massachusetts Virtual Academy students will be expected to spend the same amount of time on classwork as students in traditional schools and will be required to pass the statewide assessment test, known as the MCAS. They also will receive traditional textbooks and materials for their assignments, which might include making a diorama out of sand to study erosion.

"We are known to ship dirt and make sure they have all the materials they need for active engagement," said Lorna Bryant, interim director of schools for K12, a Virginia-based, for-profit online education company that will be providing the learning materials to the school.

Full-scale virtual schools started opening around the country nearly a decade ago. Last school year, about 70,000 students in 27 states and Washington, D.C., were enrolled in full-time online schools operated by K12.

Greenfield, in northwestern Massachusetts, plans to target students across the state who have medical or social issues that prevent them from attending a traditional brick-and-mortar school. That includes students who have cancer, Crohn's disease, autism, and anxiety disorders.

The school also plans to enroll students who may have suffered from bullying, young athletes who spend a lot of time traveling, children from military families who tend to move often and students who don't feel challenged at traditional schools.

The school is being funded as any other public school in the state. School districts that have students attending the school will have to pay Greenfield up to $5,000 per student.

Critics and even some supporters of the virtual school model say they worry that students will miss out on interacting with their peers. But Greenfield officials say students will work on group projects online and some will participate in monthly field trips, where they will be able to meet their classmates.

"We are starting from a point where these students have little to no interaction, so they will become more integrated and not less," said John Lunt, chairman of the Greenfield School Committee.

Greenfield has been working on opening a virtual school for 18 months. Provisions of the education overhaul law, passed this year, allowed for virtual schools.

But Greenfield faced a roadblock in the state's requirement that 25 percent of the students live in the district operating the virtual school and 10 percent if the school is intended to serve a target population. The state granted Greenfield an exemption Aug. 13 to those rates and requires only 2 percent instead.

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