Virtual Schooling Programs Grow in the Lake Area

Bailey Johnson volunteers at Can We Ride through Hennepin County Home School. She does her homework during breaks at the stables.

Jessica Langevin of Mound had been frustrated with traditional schooling for years. She felt that her grades didn’t reflect her efforts and she was constantly beset by obstacles. Then along came an alternative: virtual schooling by way of MTS Minnesota Connections Academy (CA).

“[CA] removed the distractions and white noise from my education,” Langevin says, “allowing me to experience school from a different perspective. Once that happened, my whole life changed.”

Others are finding the same results. Minnetonka residents Amy and Steve Johnson have eight kids, in grades ranging from second to 11th, and six have been enrolled at CA for six years. The Johnsons had been homeschooling, but, Amy Johnson says, “I needed more accountability and structure. I was making goals we couldn’t reach, and with my kids at different grade levels, it was overwhelming to do so many separate lesson plans.”

Virtual schools like CA came to in Minnesota in 2001(CA launched in 2005), and since then enrollment numbers have skyrocketed.  The International Association for K–12 Online Learning reports that more than 1.5 million K–12 students use some type of online or blended learning, and approximately 250,000 students attend dedicated online courses.

CA opened its doors in 2005 with eight students; it has more than 1,400 students enrolled today. The program serves K–12 students via email, live online lessons, text-based curriculum, webcasts, telephone conversations and more. Recognizing the fact that no two students learn in the same way, lesson plans are individually tailored to the strengths and learning style of each student. CA offers licensed teachers and tutorials, and the same standardized testing as traditional public schools. It’s free to attend. A variety of field trips and community activities give students a chance to get together and reinforce lessons from their daily coursework and socialize with other students and family members.

CA is the first virtual schooling program in the state, says spokeswoman Gina Swanson; the majority of the faculty share an office under one roof, which facilitates “great camaraderie, team-building and information sharing,” she says. 

Elementary teacher and Minnetonka resident Lee Glauser is in his fourth year of teaching at CA and he particularly enjoys the collaborative spirit of the teachers. “We work with one another across grade levels to make sure that everyone’s on same page.” This philosophy of inclusion extends to the family networks of each student. For example, there are regularly scheduled calls with each family. “We make sure we keep in constant contact with the student and the parent,” Glauser says. “We really get to know the whole family unit in order to understand how they work best together and facilitate their learning process the best way we can.”

One surprise benefit for Glauser was becoming more tech-savvy. CA developed a proprietary learning management system that tracks a student’s progress and allows three-way interaction among student, teacher and peers, with features such as a chat pod. Says Glauser, “The Adobe Connect program has been a real learning experience, and the skills associated with it can be transferred to other technologies and situations for both the teachers and the students.”

Many students like the Johnson family who once were homeschooled appreciate virtual schooling because they are still studying in the comfort of their homes but make meaningful connections with a range of state-certified teachers and other students. Recent awareness of the issue of bullying in schools is another key factor in exploding enrollment numbers. Parents also like the flexibility of online schooling so that kids can fit in other activities such as volunteering. One student at MTS Minnesota Connections Academy is an international figure skater with the goal of reaching the 2014 Winter Olympics, and virtual schooling has allowed them to rigorously pursue their sport while getting a complete education at the same time.

Amy Johnson also values the life skills CA has taught her kids, such as time management and communication skills. Shy at first, they now are comfortable contacting teachers directly with questions. The flexibility allows two of her daughters to work with their figure skating coach during the day, and another daughter to volunteer at a horse therapy program for disabled children. The Johnsons have met lots of other kids through the program and enjoy the field trips with their peers.  

Mound’s Langevin says that before she switched from traditional schools to CA, she “passively accepted things how they were. Now, I realize that when I’m having trouble with something I can search for other solutions that would work better. I have discovered that seeing what I am capable of is enlightening.”

Langevin’s parents were leery about online schooling, but the state accreditation allayed some of their fears. Langevin acknowledges that the transition was rocky at first, especially learning to use the technology. She found the curriculum surprisingly challenging but enjoyed the support and unlimited access to her teachers, guidance counselor and learning coach/mom. They were “all committed to helping me adjust,” she reports, “I was soon able to earn straight As and take advanced classes.”

One of the largest virtual schools in the state is Minnesota Virtual Academy (MNVA), with more than 2,300 students. K12 offersthree distinct online public school options with varying programs: MNVA (part of the Houston, Minn., school district), Insight School (part of Brooklyn Center) and IQ Academy-MN (Fergus Falls). Teachers work typical school hours and also have open office hours for individual consultation. Through a program called Blackboard Collaborative, students and teachers can write, present, see each other, and chat back and forth. If a student needs more one-on-one time with the teacher, that can be arranged. MNVA provides all the textbooks and other educational material; there is even MNVA apparel available for purchase online.

Local development manager Jennifer Houghton praises MNVA’s offerings for students who are accelerating, especially since many public schools are cutting their advanced placement programs. “Our teaching is very individualized,” Houghton says, “so it’s also a beneficial setting for students who might be behind or learn at a slower pace. We have many students with autism, ADHD and Asperger’s syndrome who need special attention and customized curriculum.”

Houghton also helps plan academic and social events, including prom, graduation, school photos, open houses, social clubs and field trips. Orientation entails traveling the state with the principals and guidance counselors to meet with the families in person.

Like CA, Minnesota Virtual High School emphasizes flexibility, interactivity and academic excellence. The testimonials from both parents and students on the academy website are effusive, citing the freedom from distractions or peer pressure as a major benefit. Course offerings include fundamentals such as English and math but also world languages, health education, and AP and college prep classes. An impressive list of electives includes psychology, environmental career and technology skills, art, life skills, and many more. Perhaps most importantly, students graduate with a nationally recognized diploma.

Is virtual schooling the future of education? It just might be. If you’ve noticed how tots lunge for any laptop or smartphone in sight or if you’ve had to ask an 8-year-old for help with your computer, it makes perfect sense. Perhaps it’s time: The writing is on the wall—er, screen. At it could spare the next generation the wrath of the mean lunch lady.