Nebraska’s first K-8 virtual school recently got the blessing of the Omaha school board, while Omaha Public Schools Superintendent Mark Evans gave assurances that the online program would avoid the pitfalls that have dogged virtual schools in other states.
With the board’s unanimous approval last month, the OPS-run Omaha Virtual School will open this month. In its first year the program will be open only to home-schooled students in grades K-8, providing them a mix of face-to-face instruction and online lessons.
OPS plans to hire four teachers and a student learning advocate, similar to a school counselor, to start.
The Omaha Virtual School is free and will give all students a laptop so they can receive instruction at home, at their own pace. Students also will be required to report in person once a week for face-to-face activities, such as field trips or science labs, as part of the program’s “blended learning” model.
“I believe strongly that a school isn’t just about the building, it’s about the students,” said Wendy Loewenstein, the virtual school’s director. “Not every student can find success in a traditional school environment, and our school will be providing another option for families to explore.”
Loewenstein has held more than a dozen information sessions for home-school families at Omaha-area libraries and at the Do Space digital library at 72nd and Dodge Streets. The district has received more than 180 applications to enroll.
Enrollment will be capped at 300 for at least the first year, and students must sign up for at least two courses. Available courses will cover core subject areas such as math and language arts, plus several tech-friendly electives, such as coding.
Some home-school parents have said they’re excited to enroll their children for classes to supplement what they’re taught at home. Others have expressed reticence over the state mandates and public school curriculum to which home-school students would have to adhere.
At the July 18 school board meeting, Evans said that he also has fielded questions and concerns about virtual schools in other states, some of which have closed or posted low test scores and graduation rates.
“It’s not uncommon to see articles across the nation about online schools that didn’t do well,” he said. “In other states I’ve seen it happen because they didn’t do it the right way. What you just heard tonight in this brief description is someone doing it the right way.”
OPS will pay K12 Classroom LLC, a national, for-profit online learning company, to provide the web-based software and curriculum for online classes. The company was one of two to submit bids to deliver online content.
According to the California Attorney General’s Office, the company admitted no wrongdoing but recently agreed to pay $8.5 million as part of a settlement with the State of California, and forgive debt owed by the charters that it manages. The state alleged K12 and the affiliated California Virtual Academy — recently the subject of a lengthy series in the San Jose Mercury News — ran a network of nonprofit online charter schools that engaged in misleading advertisements and inflated attendance numbers to gain more state funding.
Evans said that the OPS program and its staff will remain firmly under the control of the district and the Nebraska Department of Education. Teachers will be state-certified and employees of OPS, and the curriculum will align with Nebraska standards.
“I want the public and the board to feel confident ... we will not provide less than quality, which means certified teachers and the oversight of the Board of Education,” he said. “We recognize we’ll be under close scrutiny.”
Evans and Rob Dickson, OPS’s executive director of information management services, previously worked together at Andover Public Schools in Kansas, which launched a popular online school called Andover eCademy six years ago.
The goal is to eventually open online classes to OPS students if district officials can persuade the Legislature to provide state funding for virtual school students. A similar bill in the last legislative session stalled out.
While this will be the first K-8 virtual school in the state, online courses for high schoolers are already available, for a fee, through the University of Nebraska High School.
OPS has budgeted $495,116 for its program in the 2016-17 school year.
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