Middle school students left out of the virtual classroom

Thursday, March 22, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:40 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — For the first time this fall Missouri will offer hundreds of students a chance to take online courses for free throughout the state. But many parents are upset because middle school students will be left out for now.

A state law required the education department to create a “virtual school” for kindergarten through high school students. The agency decided to start in stages, expecting more limited funding, so its bid request for the school’s initial year was limited. Classes will be offered to kindergarten through fifth grade and to high school students in the coming school year, but a sixth- through eighth-grade program won’t be available until the following year.

The plan awaiting a House vote would provide $5.2 million for the virtual school in the first year — double the governor’s original budget recommendation.

But education officials say that even with more money, it’s too late to add middle-school grades.

That’s especially frustrating to parents of middle school students

who championed the program at the Capitol.

Garry Jones, of Kansas City, has a 12-year-old daughter who is home-schooled by her parents because of her asthma and allergies. She will be in seventh grade next year., falling into the gap in the virtual education program.

He said his family and many others with middle school students traveled to Jefferson City to advocate for the bill and now aren’t reaping its benefits.

“The bill was K through 12. Never was it said we would not have certain grades,” said Jones, who is also the chairman of Missourians for Online Education.

Curt Fuchs, virtual education director for the state Department

of Elementary and Secondary Education, said the bid process to select contractors that will offer the curriculum is lengthy and couldn’t be redone in time to get started in August.

“We haven’t come up with a good solution yet,” he said.

Education officials and legislators say they understand the frustration, but want to move slowly in getting the program running and to work out the kinks. They pledge courses will be offered to all grade levels in the second year.

“It is still a pilot project at the end of the day,” said Rep. Brian Baker, R-Belton, who has pushed to increase the budget for the coming school year. “We have to take one step at a time.”

Fuchs said he envisions a program that can help a student who flunked a class get caught up, or allow another to get a required course out of the way during the summer, freeing up more hours during the school day for other interests. Plus, it could be just the answer for a small rural school with two students wanting to take trigonometry and no appropriate teacher.

Some families say that’s part of the problem — education officials aren’t focused on those who want to use the virtual school as a full-time program.

“We still don’t understand completely why he chose to leave those grades out,” Jones said. “I know what we’ve been told, but I still don’t understand it.”

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