First-grader Aiden Brezina doesn't have to bother with crowded school buses. He doesn't have to worry about forgetting his lunch box or being picked on in the classroom.
That's because his mother, Amanda, enrolled Aiden, 6, in the Iowa Virtual Academy, an online public school. Brezina, a former educator from Des Moines, said she home schooled Aiden the previous year, and after looking into her options, she decided the Iowa Virtual Academy was the best choice for her son.
"We have the flexibility of home schooling, but there is a lot more accountability," she said.
The academy is part of the K12 Inc., of Herndon, Va., network, which is the largest provider of virtual public schooling. Iowa Virtual Academy began during the 2012 school year with grades K-6 and will expand in the 2013-2014 to include grades seven through 12.
Steven Hoff, head of schools at the Iowa Virtual Academy, said the program enables students to move at their own pace. Whether students are seeking relief from bullying, are advanced learners or are struggling, the Iowa Virtual Academy gives them an alternative to a brick and mortar school.
Essentially, he said, it gives students an individualized approach to learning.
"We are able to find areas of deficiencies and fill those gaps," Hoff said.
What it's all about
The state-approved curriculum uses a combination of online and hands-on materials. The program's two instructors are state-certified. Students open enroll through the Clayton Ridge Community School District. Enrollment is now open. The deadline for open enrollment for kindergartners is Sept. 1. Otherwise, the deadline is March 1.
Clayton Ridge Superintendent Allan Nelson did not return a call at press time, but said in an Iowa Virtual Academy press release that the program brings "education to the students instead of students trying to fit themselves into education."
In recent years, there has been a proliferation of online options made available to parents. And K12, which teaches about 95,000 students in 28 states and Washington D.C., has been its champion, spearheading most of the campaign associated with school choice.
Between 2005 and 2012, K12 contributed more than $976,000 to state politicians across the U.S., according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Due, at least in part, to the removal of barriers and passing of laws that have enabled online schooling to become more viable, if K12 were a school district, it would be one of the 30 largest in the nation.
K12 curriculum has won numerous awards.
Hoff said the Iowa Virtual Academy has 83 students enrolled in its program who work hand-in-hand with parents and learning coaches. Those students are spread relatively even between grades K-6, with each grade having between 10 and 12 students. Local trends as to what kinds of students the academy gets seem to mirror national trends, he added.
Still, concerns about socialization are sharp on the tongues of online learning critics. They say removing a child from the classroom removes an essential aspect of learning process, robbing them of the ability to socialize while they learn.
But Hoff said that is a misnomer. Online learning simply speaks a language younger generations can understand.
"The idea that kids aren't socially interacting is a farce," he said. "How do kids communicate nowadays? The wave of the future is communicating electronically."
Besides, he said, kids do interact with other one another and adults. Instructors are required to hold monthly field trips. This year, students visited an apple orchard and a water park. They even went ice skating.
Brezina said the majority of the learning her son does is not on the computer. They work together and independently on several projects throughout the day, she said. The program's format allows her to tailor Aiden's lesson structure, focusing more on areas where he needs improvement.
"I know his strengths and weaknesses, and I can cater to those," Brezina said. "Confident is a good word to describe how I feel."
She plans to enroll her other children in the Iowa Virtual Academy as soon as they are old enough. She recommends the program to others.
"Socialization doesn't just happen in school," she said.
However, online learning has come under fire for also failing to meet national standards. According to a study conducted by Western Michigan University and the National Education Policy Center, only about a third of students enrolled in K12's schools met benchmarks set by No Child Left Behind legislation.
A shifting paradigm
Marshall County School District Superintendent Marvin Wade said although the local school district is not involved with the Iowa Virtual Academy, he wouldn't discourage anyone from considering their options and making an informed decision as to what is best for their child.
"It's another option for Iowa families," he said. "It could possibly be a benefit."
And there is also an aspect of competition at work, he said. As online schools become increasingly common, brick and mortar schools need to keep up with the technological aspect of learning.
With the addition of a fiber optic and wireless networks as well as continuing to expand online options, Marshall County School District is exploring ideas that run parallel to online schools like the Iowa Virtual Academy.
"It's just another avenue we have to explore to stay competitive. In a lot of ways that is the future of education," he said. "We have to prove ourselves with the product we offer."
Jennifer Wilson, vice president of the Marshall County School District School Board, said while online education is a viable option for some, it is unable to address the needs of every child.
Families can learn more about the Iowa Virtual Academy by visiting K12.com/IAVA.