SEATTLE -- If you thought public schools
were pretty set in their ways, you haven't
checked out the Internet Academy, where
students are more likely to meet online than in a
classroom. The Seattle-area school has grown
from a few dozen students in 1996 to some 300
today with 95 percent of those who take
classes from home.
Another 100 students are waiting to get in, and
enrollment is expected to reach 1,000 by spring 1999.
The idea is to serve a variety of children and parents who don't want a traditional school structure, says
principal Linda McInturff, whose academy is part of the
Federal Way School District, located south of Seattle.
That variety includes: home-schoolers; in-school
students needing to make up credits; private-school
students; students in hospital or recovering at home;
dropouts trying to get back in; and students in other states
or even other countries.
The youngest student is in kindergarten, and others are
studying from their homes in Texas, New York, Idaho,
Colorado and Oregon. Two students attend from Latvia
and a third from Mexico.
For many parents who had tried or considered home
schooling without public school help, the academy provides
several advantages. A big selling point is that since it's an
accredited school, it issues high-school diplomas and
transcripts making it easier to apply to colleges. Another
is that the academy offers subjects many parents can't teach like foreign languages and computer skills.
Last year, McInturff notes, only four of the 250
enrolled students decided to leave the academy and return
to a more traditional school. And McInturff says a big sign
that the academy is a hit with parents is that enrollment
should reach 1,000 students by spring.
Some students take just one or two courses online, but
most do all their studying from the online curriculum, which
includes traditional subjects as well as Native American
studies, aviation, environmental science, technology, and
even "Total Quality Service" a class developed with
United Airlines to train future workers in customer service.
The academy does have a computer lab where
students can do assignments, but most of the work is done
at home or via field trips. Last year's outings included a
scavenger hunt at Seattle's Asian Art Museum, where
students collected socio-cultural data for later entry into
For those few students who don't have their own
computer, McInturff says, there's the lab as well as a local
library and a community resource center at a nearby
Signing on to plans
The academy also seeks to involve parents, and
community partners, in much of what it does through an
advisory council. Parents also can contact instructors by
e-mail or phone. Some even help out with curriculum like a
K-2 reading program.
And each student, along with a parent and teacher,
signs an individualized academic plan that spells out what's
"We set clear expectations for e-mail and Net use with
all students and their families when they register," says
McInturff, adding that so far there's been only one minor
incident, where students used inappropriate language in an
online chat session. They were warned, and it hasn't
happened again, she said.
As for cost, home schooled students who live in the
Federal Way district do not pay tuition. Neither do most
private school students taking an Academy course not
offered at their school. Students outside the district do pay
tuition, as do in-district students taking Academy classes in
addition to public school classes.
District big on technology
The Academy is part of a bigger philosophical
commitment by the Federal Way School District for every
student to "possess world-class skills with daily access to
In 1996, its first year, the Academy had some 20
elementary and 25 secondary students. That grew to 250
last year, evenly split between the two levels. The school
now has a full online curriculum for both elementary and
McInturff believes many more families will choose
virtual schools like the academy because of its flexibility,
"the ability to individualize to a specific student's needs,"
and the chance to learn technical skills while taking an
As for traditional schools, she adds, "I think they will
always be present but their infrastructure will change
radically to include more technology options for students."
A key component to the classes are the weekly online
"Students may take an integrated unit like Global
Studies with a group or independently," explains teacher
Ron MacDonald, whose classes include one on flight and
scientific method that uses NASA's Web resources.
"Students taking the class with the group meet every
Monday in the IA chat room" to review assignments and
ask questions, a process that usually takes 30 minutes.
Participation is required for those students, he adds,
but the transcript is posted on the unit's Web page later in
the week if someone can't make the chat for a legitimate
"Students taking the unit independently," MacDonald
says, "provide a weekly report via e-mail, chat or telephone
After the formal chats, MacDonald is available to chat
one on one or to trouble shoot. And e-mail and phone calls
come and go all day long, he says.
The students also get together during a unit, either in the
lab or on field trips, and present their final projects in a live
presentation to the class.
Teaching online, MacDonald adds, "provides a
tremendous opportunity for creating new learning materials"
while at the same time requiring students to "actively
participate" in education.
Trend & Obstacles
The Internet Academy is one of several online grade
schools that have started in recent years, among them the
"CyberSchools" in Eugene, Ore., and in Edmonds, Wash..
And the Yahoo! directory lists dozens of similar K-12
programs, most of them based in the United States.
The University of Washington is evaluating the Internet
Academy for the Federal Way School District, but already
others are looking at adopting it as a model. The Hillsboro
and Salem-Kaiser school districts in Oregon plan to start
pilots next year, McInturff says.
Still, there are obstacles to going online. McInturff says
startup costs for developing an online curriculum are not
inexpensive. Her advice to educators contemplating an
online school is to have "a strong commitment of fiscal and
human resources ... and a dedicated team of creative
MacDonald notes that, if he had an unlimited budget,
he'd provide a computer with fast network
connections for each student, a vast online library of
resource materials and a resource bank with the tools to
learn specific skills, like how to sum a column of numbers
on a spreadsheet or how to verify something found on the
And MacDonald knows the hectic pace is not for
every teacher since it requires learning to use technology
while also juggling traditional tasks like trying to motivate
students. "A teacher in this role has to be committed to the
concept of life-long learning," he says. "In this process we
are in a never ending race to make the best use we can of
technology that changes faster than we can master it."