Virtual school puts paints, pianos online

Starting in the fall, Missouri’s elementary students can take fine arts courses on the Internet
Monday, June 18, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:11 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

This fall, there may be a few less paint-splattered fingers, smiley-faced suns and lollipop trees.

Instead, some elementary school students will be logging in to their art and music classes from home. Thousands of students across the state will take part in the new Missouri Virtual Instruction Program, set to launch in August.

Virtual school statistics

As of Friday morning, 2,328 students have registered to take at least one class in Missouri’s virtual school. Of those, 726 are elementary school students and 1,602 are high schoolers. So far, 72 students who live within the Columbia Public School District have enrolled. Curt Fuchs, who directs the virtual school program, said the enrollment so far reflects 96 percent capacity at the high school level and 90 percent capacity at the elementary school level.

Through its online curricula, the virtual school is intended to provide opportunities for students who need or want more than their school districts or home schools can offer. Students can enroll for classes in the program, which is state-funded for the first 2,500 to 3,000 openings.

With lesson plans and help from teachers, a student’s parent or guardian moderates classes. Assignments are completed and returned to a teacher by e-mail.

While the program has an academic focus, the virtual school also offers fine arts courses, tailored to students in kindergarten through fifth grade. With virtual classes, art and music will be taught with focus more on facts than performance, said Curt Fuchs, who directs the virtual school program.

“Art is going to be more historically oriented,” Fuchs said. “Music is composers. ... It’s not quite as ideal for fine arts at as it is academics.”

With that in mind, Fuchs noted that enrollment in art and music is small compared to other classes because of the program’s academic focus. But even for youngsters enrolled in the fine arts classes, the messy art projects that used to decorate the refrigerator door will not be a thing of the past. Connections Academy, a Baltimore-based company that provides the elementary curriculum, still strives to maintain a hands-on approach.

“Our curriculum is technology facilitated, but not all online,” said Mickey Revenaugh, vice principal of partnership and outreach for Connections Academy. “The computer does a lot, but it’s not a replacement for things that are better done off line.”

Connections Academy creates the lesson plans, which are adjusted by the individual states to fit their requirements. On the high school level, Northwest Missouri State University is partnering with online learning companies to provide curricula.

“We’re not really involved in the planning and implementation of (the virtual school), we’re just responsible for getting the information to our students,” said Ann Landes, guidance director at Hickman High School. “Our role is letting the students know that it exists and providing the information on how to enroll.”

Project materials will be provided for students, who will send an art portfolio every four to six weeks to teachers in Jefferson City. Portfolio content varies by class and projects progress in complexity as the student matures.

A similar structure exists in the music program. Along with lessons in music appreciation, students will be able to create their own music on the computer as well.

Nicole Schweitzer, principal of Wisconsin Connections Academy, noted that even with the distance, students often receive more one-on-one time with teachers since frequent two-way feedback is encouraged.

“It is a wonderful marriage between the benefits of home schooling and the incredible benefits of being part of a school district,” Schweitzer said.

But like many marriages, this one is not yet perfect. Some educators have noted the limitations of current technology in teaching hands-on subjects such as art and music.

“I know there are things available now where artwork can be scanned and stored in a computer and e-mailed,” said Martin Hook, director of fine arts for Columbia Public Schools. “You can’t see the student’s actual work, just a representation of it, and that might be a problem.”

Assessing a student’s competence in music performance also presents challenges. A student would have to mail a recording of a performance, or a teacher would listen to the student sing over the phone or the Internet.

But a likely loss of audio quality would result from such methods.

“I don’t see any way that you can have a music ensemble, band, choir or orchestra function under that set of circumstances with the present technology,” Hook said.

In Wisconsin, the state Connections Academy has existed for five years, and Schweitzer said teachers have been able to compensate for distance.

“The teachers find it to be fairly comfortable in assessing their mastered knowledge because the lesson plans are fairly complete,” Schweitzer said. “It is not at all unlike math, whereby the teacher is knowledgeable of the many ways to solve a problem and the many ways to teach a child to understand and solve a problem.”

When Missouri’s virtual school opens, the state will join 13 other Connections Academy-backed schools in 12 states. Some are focused on certain locations, like California’s Capistrano Valley and Central California schools, while others serve the entire state.

“We have a pocket of students who live in the Twin Cities, and then we have a lot of students who live in rural Minnesota,” Minnesota Connections Academy Principal Melissa Nelson said. “There’s a lot of financial trouble (in education); they’re having to make budget cuts or consolidate their school district, so they’d have to bus to another school in a surrounding town. Those families find they don’t want their kids to sit on the bus for two hours.”

Connections Academy provides all lesson plans, which are then matched to each state’s requirements.

“It combines the accountability of public schools with the flexibility of working at home,” Nelson said.

However, some families might pass an individual state’s screening process and then find Connections Academy — and thus the virtual school program — is not a perfect fit for their needs.

“This is not a replacement for the public school,” Fuchs said. “This is not for every kid.

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