Virtual schools popping up in Georgia

Virtual schools are expanding their reach into Georgia, where three schools now operate in the state with a combined enrollment of nearly 15,000 students.

The schools offer students an opportunity to learn at their own pace and on their own schedule while providing an escape from bullying and overcrowding in traditional schools. But they also have raised concerns about student socialization, and they face unique challenges in providing legally required services to special education students.

With an enrollment of about 12,000 students, Georgia Cyber Academy is the largest single school in the state. In fact, GCA is larger than many school districts in the state.

Georgia Connections Academy has an enrollment of 2,000, and Provost Academy Georgia, currently in its first academic year in this state, has an enrollment of 838 students.

Officials at the schools say they are growing rapidly as more parents learn about what they offer: a free, public education that can be accessed on your time frame.

For-profit companies provide the schools with management, curriculum and learning materials. The schools receive per-pupil state money and federal funds based on the number of types of students they enroll. Like students at traditional public schools, virtual school students in Georgia are required to take the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test and End-of-Course Tests.

Many parents rave about their experiences with the online schools.

Debbie Kessinger said she enrolled her daughter, Isabella, in GCA after a move from Kentucky.

The plan was to enroll her into a traditional public school here, but Kessinger said that changed when she learned that Isabella’s new school was just beginning to teach material she had only recently completed in Kentucky.

Kessinger said she didn’t want Isabella to go over the same material again and decided to enroll her at GCA.

What was supposed to be a temporary solution to a specific problem has turned into a perfect match, Kessinger said.

“My daughter just finds the curriculum so fascinating,” Kessinger said.

Students at virtual schools can participate in online classes, where they can interact remotely with other students and with a teacher. They can review taped classes, or they can take courses on their own.

Georgia Connections emphasizes contact with teachers.

“We engage our families in a personal way, where we look to meet them face to face,” said Heather Robinson, the school’s principal. “The hallmark of our school is our teachers.”

In addition to offering online instruction, Provost Academy Georgia has partnered with Magic Johnson Bridgescape Learning Centers to reach students who are at risk of dropping out of school and those who have decided to return after dropping out.

“A lot of our parents have come to us because the public, brick-and-mortar school situation is toxic,” said Monica Henson, Provost Academy Georgia’s executive director. “They’ve been bullied. Their classes are overcrowded.”

Some experts, however, believe virtual students don’t get the same opportunity to develop the social skills traditional public school students hone as they personally encounter teachers and other students.

And there are other ways to cope with bullying, some experts say. Izzy Kalman, a child psychologist and author, has written that one way to deal with some instances of bullying is to simply stop being afraid of the bully.

“When you stop being afraid of them, they feel foolish trying to scare you and soon stop,” Kalman wrote in his book, “Bullies to Buddies.”

Bullying isn’t the only reason some parents choose virtual schools.

Some have children whose exceptional athletic or musical skills are best developed — and capitalized upon — during what would be the child’s school years.

Like traditional public schools, the three public virtual schools operating in Georgia are not allowed to turn away special education students.

Such students often have an individualized education plan, and any school those students attend is required to get that plan so it can be modified or adhered to.

Officials at the Georgia Department of Education said GCA has struggled in that area as its student population has boomed. GCA’s head of school, Matt Arkin, said the school has worked with the state to clear up challenges in that area.

Meanwhile, parents are continuing to turn to GCA, Provost Academy Georgia and Georgia Connections. Flexibility, they said, is a major draw.

“As long as you have access to the Internet, you can keep up with this program,” Kessinger said of her experience with GCA. “You can do school on the beach. We’ve done that.”