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Expanding Online Learning In Iowa

“Companies looking to expand online public education in Iowa”
by Timothy Meinch and Grant Rodgers
Des Moines Register
February 23, 2012

Two national private companies could significantly impact the classroom experience for kindergarten through 12th-grade students across Iowa.

Connections Academy and K12 Inc. plan to offer full-time online education programs, in which Iowa students could enroll rather than attend their own district, in the fall.

Connections Academy plans to partner with the CAM Community School District (Cumberland, Anita, Massena) in Cass County, opening Iowa Connections Academy, and K12 will partner with the Clayton Ridge district in Clayton County, opening Iowa Virtual Academy.

Officials from both companies are currently showing curriculums to parents and explaining how online education systems work at a series of meetings with families across the state. Iowa Connections Academy will host an event in Altoona at the Holiday Inn Express, 165 Adventureland Drive N.W., at 11 a.m. Friday, Feb. 24. “There’s a lot about full-time virtual school that is still kind of mysterious to people,” Allison Bazin, a spokeswoman for Connections Academy, said.

While online public schools remain a mystery to many, representatives from both companies say their full-time online students get a full school day, complete with clubs, activities and field trips.

Gov. Terry Branstad, in his reform efforts, has pushed for more online learning for students. Proponents of online or virtual learning say it will allow smaller districts to expand their course offerings.

Using an online education system, students will log on each day and receive live lessons, similar to a webinar, from the school’s Iowa-licensed teachers. After-school activities available at Iowa Connections Academy range from chess club to a student newspaper.

All Iowa students are able to open-enroll in the virtual schools; both Iowa Connections Academy and Iowa Virtual Academy are public schools within their respective districts.

The virtual schools also offer Iowa-licensed teacher curriculums to home-schooling families in the state, said Steve Pelzer, superintendent of the CAM district.

“They’re interested in having a curriculum backed by Iowa-licensed teachers available to them on a daily basis,” Pelzer said.

Officials behind the online programs also say this model is not specifically designed for home-schooling families.

Southeast Polk Superintendent Craig Menozzi said school officials are currently uncertain of the impact the schools could have on local districts.

“We’ll just have to wait and see how much interest there is,” Menozzi said, noting it would be up to parents to enroll their children in the online schools. “They would make a choice to take their child out of SEP and enroll them in the online program.”

Critics of the program say they are concerned about public schools partnering with private for-profit, out-of-state companies that would take a significant portion of money from the state.

With the current model, the companies will receive about 97 percent of the $5,883 of state funding per student enrolled. The respective district will receive the rest.