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Internet Academy finds school niche

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.
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Written by Miguel Llanos on
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 laptop computers.

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 shopping mall.

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 expected.

"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 technology."

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 secondary levels.

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 academic course.

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."

Class chat
A key component to the classes are the weekly online chats. "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 reason. "Students taking the unit independently," MacDonald says, "provide a weekly report via e-mail, chat or telephone each Monday."

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 curriculum developers."

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 Net.

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."





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