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Oregon Connections Academy Virtual School

An interesting article in the Oregonian on the Oregon Connections Academy, a virtual K-9 school.

What is interesting:

  1. They have 700 students across Oregon, but had to turn away another 500 due to space limitations
  2. It is a privately run charter school. So it receives public funding and has to follow almost all rules of public schools
  3. The OEA teacher's union doesn't like it because it doesn't have face-to-face contact with teachers. However, phone contact is bi-monthly, sometimes several times a week - FAR more than a typical school.
  4. It is nestled in the big town of Scio. Go Scio!

Web school draws pupils, critics
A virtual Oregon school is poised to double in size amid criticism of its methods

Wednesday, June 07, 2006
STEVEN CARTER

SCIO -- The state's biggest virtual school ends next week after an inaugural year that drew nearly 700 students with soaring demand that could double its size this fall, eventually making it the largest school in Oregon.

Through marketing and word of mouth, the taxpayer-funded charter school has attracted hundreds of home-schooled students and others looking for an alternative to private or regular public school.

But Oregon Connections Academy also is drawing controversy because it is run by a for-profit company, has a student-teacher ratio of 50-1 and relies chiefly on parents to do the kind of hands-on schoolwork with their children at home that normally would take place between a teacher and student in a classroom.

Results of the approach -- which uses the Internet, mail and telephone to deliver lessons -- won't be known until this summer, when test scores for public schools are released by state educators.

"I wouldn't want to see this as the model for all of public education," said Peter Cookson, dean of the graduate school of education at Lewis & Clark College, which trains teachers. "There are many social benefits for students to be gained from being in face-to-face contact with teachers and other students."

Jim Thomas, Connections Academy principal, agrees that his school isn't for everybody. It requires an adult who can spend hours each day with the student, particularly younger students who need direction and encouragement. Parents must sign a contract saying they act as the learning coach. Attendance is taken daily, and the curriculum is rigorous.

"You have to be motivated," Thomas said.

He has been surprised by the demand for the virtual approach, with the school having to turn away about 500 applicants this year because of staff limitations.

Thomas, the former superintendent of the Scio School District, is busy overseeing the remodeling of rented space to expand the school's office in the Linn County farming community southeast of Salem. Connections Academy, like other Oregon charters, is an independent school operating on tax money under a contract with a school district that spells out its responsibilities.

It is the first charter school in the state operated by a private company. Connections Academy of Baltimore is an education management company that operates schools in 11 states for a fee -- in this case, nearly $350,000 a year.

All of the Connections Academy schools are virtual schools. The company has created a standard kindergarten-through-ninth-grade curriculum but modifies it for the educational standards in each state. In Oregon, for example, the curriculum has been changed to give elementary students more practice in writing because Oregon standards put a premium on writing skills at a young age.

Students get lessons, textbooks and supplies such as crayons or science experiments through the mail. Teachers in Scio are available by phone and e-mail to consult with parents and students.

About 60 percent of the school's students have been home-schooled by parents who are used to a hands-on role.

Trishanna Nikander of Gresham was a home-schooling mother of four boys attracted to Connections Academy by the ready-made curriculum and teacher support. She no longer pays for books or learning materials, which are provided by the academy using state funds.

Nikander has two older boys in school, Stephen, 11, a fifth-grader, and Jonathan, 8, a second-grader.

On a recent weekday morning, she guided Jonathan through a reading lesson at the dining room table, while Stephen did a math lesson on the computer in the other room. Her mother-in-law, Margaret Nikander, kept a watch on Benjamin, 4, and Nicholas, 2 -- both too young for school.

"A drum is a per. . . per. . . per. . ." Jonathan read aloud from a workbook sent by the school.

"Sound it out, Jonathan," Nikander coached him.

"Perc --"

" --Percussion," his mother finished the word for him.

Jonathan got over the hump and continued reading the passage. They went on to a new passage called "Be an Artist." Nikander had the 8-year-old do a vocabulary quiz at the end.

Nikander keeps a log of the work Stephen and Jonathan do and sends it in each day on the Internet. Stephen, the older boy, takes online quizzes that give him instant feedback.

Both their mother and their teacher, Susanne Eide, based at her work station at Oregon Connection Academy headquarters, can monitor which lessons the boys have completed and which they have not. Once a month, Nikander sends in a prepaid envelope of the boys' work, which Eide grades. Connections teachers must have a parent-teacher conference at least every two weeks, but Eide is in contact with many parents -- and students -- more often than that, via e-mail or telephone.

Eide has taught 15 years in public and private school. She is comfortable with technology, having taught students how to use computers for six of those years.

Eide has 49 students, mostly fifth-graders. At her desk in Scio, she checks student progress and can tell whether a student hasn't completed assignments or is missing school. Her day is filled with e-mails to and from students, conversations with parents, and correcting and grading assignments.

Eide said she likes both kinds of teaching -- face to face and electronic. The Connections Academy curriculum is strong, she said, with a heavy emphasis on grammar for younger children. Some teachers disagree. Laurie Wimmer Whelan, a government relations specialist with the Oregon Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, said her research shows that students from similar social backgrounds don't perform as well in virtual schools as they do in traditional schools.

And she said her organization is concerned over the encroachment of for-profit companies in taxpayer-funded schools.

"I am concerned about educational decisions being influenced by the profit motive, particularly when students may wind up on the short end of those decisions."

Scio Superintendent Gary Temple sees no problem with private companies in public education -- as long as they get the job done for the same price. The school district is monitoring the school's finances and has paid for a third-party evaluation of the Connections Academy's first-year performance that will be available later this month.

Nikander's interest is how much progress her sons are making. Stephen, who was behind in math when he started at the academy, is catching up. Jonathan is making strides in his reading. And they like learning at home.

"Each year, I have given them a choice of what they want to do. 'Do you want to go to (regular) public school next year?' I asked them. They said they wanted to do ORCA again."

Steven Carter: 503-221-8521; stevencarter@news.oregonian.com

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