Want to know something cool?

One point of view, taking note of sundry "cool" things that affect-- or could affect-- the education business.

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Monday, January 30, 2006

Chicago May Open Virtual School

"Johnny? You know that we click our 'flag' button before we speak to the class ... ." Picture it: As many as six hundred kids, from kindergarten through eighth grade (?) could be attending virtual schools in 2006, in the city of Chicago.

Three big questions come to mind:
1) Why start with the lowest grades? Wouldn't highschoolers be more familiar with virtuality in general?
2) Why 600? Why not start smaller, or bigger? Is class size an issue?
3) Why "in" Chicago? Why not open it up to kids in other places? Couldn't a kid in Cleveland attend a Chicago virtual school? Show up for proctored exams at a local building, but take the classes virtually?

Now that we've got those on the table, here are the facts (from an article in the Chicago Sun Times). Chicago City Schools are pushing to open the state's first online school for the 2006-2007 year. Under a program called Renaissance 2010, the system will be closing schools that perform badly, and replacing them with new schools that are have more autonomy in their operations. At least one of these new schools is proposed to be online.

The biggest obstacle at the moment seems to be resistance from the Chicago Teachers Union. Said Marilyn Stewart, president, "How can you expect these kids to succeed in a home-based setting when some of them can't succeed in a school setting? We can't afford to experiment with our children's education."

Experiment it may be, but is it safe to assume that the current system has clearly underperformed? If so, perhaps a radical revamping of the rules is warranted. Certainly no one wants students to suffer as guinea pigs for the program, but online schools have been proven to work where other schools haven't. Perhaps the risks aren't all that dramatic.

"We want to offer diverse, innovative opportunities for children, and not everyone learns the same way," said Chicago Public Schools spokesman Malon Edwards. "[Teachers] are wary of it, which is understandable."

Edwards asserts that while online programs will never replace brick-and-mortar schools, they are an alternative for students who are homebound, have been expelled, or who have trouble learning in traditional classes with 25 to 30 students.

"It definitely is not the norm," Edwards said. "I think you have people who shy away from it because you have kids who are at home in front a computer all day."

Student work is reviewed by teachers and the kids would received persnalized feedback. Chicago's program is unique because it would also have a center located downtown for student/teacher meetings, said Jeff Kwitowski, director of public relations for K12 Inc., the school's proposed manager.

The cost of the program, which includes a computer provided by the district, free Internet access, and printed materials, will be about $3.045 million, or $5,075 per student, according to the proposal submitted to the board.

Illinois State Board of Education spokeswoman Meta Minton said the board had not yet seen CPS' proposal, which she said was the first of its kind for an Illinois public school.

Pending state approval, the district would hold a series of informational meetings to get word out about the school, said Peter Stewart, K12's vice president for school development. If interest runs higher than the enrollment cap of 600 students, then the district will hold a lottery for the available slots.

An online alternative to brick-and-mortar schools even being considered by Chicago is astounding. Whatever your thoughts on the Chicago initiative, the very fact of the debate speaks to the incredible technological and entrepreneurial progress of the system at large.

Cool, huh?

How will it shake out? Comment this blog, and let's see where the conversation leads.
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