Are Students Property?

The Manhattan Mercury offers a short look at the virtual school offering of iQ Academy, a project of KC Distance Learning and USD 383 Manhattan.

How will the financing work? “Funding for the academy will come from the state, and will be allocated the standard per-pupil rate. That money pays for the laptop computer, Internet and sound equipment each student will use.” That funding will be split between KCDL and USD 383.

The program won’t consist of kids simply sitting in front of a computer quietly looking at the screen: “A program called Elluminate allows students to log on to a virtual class with headphones and microphones. The monitor acts as a blackboard, and teachers and students can speak to each other and share ideas during class. ”

Though the program was recently announced, 185 students have signed up. Obviously, it’s going to meet some needs.

Some similar programs are confined to the staff and students of a specific district. Not so with the Manhattan effort: “Teachers in the program will not necessarily be from Manhattan, but all will be certified and licensed to teach in Kansas. That means a home-schooled student in Manhattan could be taking an upper-level algebra class from a teacher logging on in Oregon. Also, students from other school districts can enroll in the program. In fact, of the program’s 185 students, only about 10 are from USD 383.”

So a student in a small town in western or southeastern Kansas might be able to take a class from a school based in Manhattan. You might think that’s a good thing, especially if there’s something that appeals to the student that can’t be met in his own school.

But at least in the minds of some, you would be wrong.

“That fact has some critics worrying about inter-district student theft, but [school director Brooke] Blanck said that hasn’t been much of a problem.

‘Some districts have been screaming,’ she said, ‘but that was mostly a few years ago. The ones that have dealt with programs like this are less worried now.'”

Were you tripped up by the same phrase that we say? Inter-district theft? Are students property? Of course not. Yet the expression is another reminder of how we tend to value systems and overlook students as individuals.

Another silly objection has been raised about virtual schools: sports. Remember that sports are (or should be) ancillary to the larger mission of education. “There has also been concern about schools using the online tool to build athletic powerhouses. Students from other districts could enroll online and play sports at the school, they say, but not actually go to the school. But Kansas State High School Athletic Association (KSHAA) rules demand that students participate in at least one class at the actual school in order to play sports.”

How many students are going to live in Leavenworth, enroll in a virtual school in Manhattan, seldom if ever set foot in a classroom there, and yet somehow be on the football team? Given the great trust that we place in schools, it’s remarkable that anyone be limited in their opportunity to pursue education through online methods out of fear that a school will use its online school to gin up its sports activities.

The dreaded “s” word comes up, too: “Other critics, including school board member Dave Colburn, who tentatively voted for the program, fear students who take online classes exclusively will miss out on critical social development opportunities. Colburn acknowledged that the district needs to move forward and that some students can benefit from online education programs, but said much of the credit for his social blossoming goes to the teachers he had growing up.”

Cast aside for a moment the perils of forming public policy based on one person’s lifetime experience. Socialization occurs in schools–not all of it good–but not only in school. There are opportunities within FFA, religious groups, scouting groups, and other venues. In addition, some virtual school programs bring students together on a regular basis for social activities.

Some parents credit online programs, in particular the program that preceded iQ Academy, with being very helpful to their children:

Others swear by the program, deeming it a Godsend.

Michaela “Micky” Norman was worried last year that her 16-year-old son Tevan was going to be kicked out of school. Tevan was diagnosed with above-average intelligence, Norman said, but suffers from an anxiety disorder and was failing virtually all of his classes.

“You keep getting told you’re failing all the time,” Norman said. “He didn’t believe in himself anymore, so the possibility of working with me at home was great. He went from flunking every class to getting almost straight A’s. He had a 3.5 GPA this last semester.”

Tevan said the program has set him free, in a way, to focus on his studies without the distractions that almost doomed his education.

“The main thing is that you don’t have the influence of all those other kids, so it’s just you and what you want to do,” he said.

It would be wrong to assume that all or even most children participating in online programs have social skills, however.

A class of cyber-grads, Manhattan Mercury, August 8, 2007

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