- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 29, 2001

Fall registration has begun at former Education Secretary William J. Bennetts new school, but theres no crush of students and parents lining up outside the building.

Instead, families are pointing and clicking their way through registration at Mr. Bennett´s new for-profit virtual education venture called K12.

Once a skeptic of the benefits of the computer in learning, Mr. Bennett has become a true cyberbeliever, putting his own unique education philosophy online and lending his energy and considerable clout to the new online school, headquartered in McLean.

"It´s the best use of the private sector that I can think of," said Mr. Bennett, who also heads the Washington-based conservative think tank Empower America.

The school, currently registering students in kindergarten through the second grade, will expand by 2004 to offer a full academic course load to students through the 12th grade. It is aimed at providing a broad and connected curriculum for home-schooling families and other parents disenchanted with their children´s progress in the classroom.

"It´s not anti-public education," says Mr. Bennett, adding that it serves as an option for those who believe they know best about how and what their children should be learning.

"We´re recognizing the power and ability of the citizen parent to take charge of their child´s education," he said.

Mr. Bennett will spend most of the summer traveling the nation touting the virtues of the online venture. The project, funded by an initial $10 million investment from the Knowledge Universe Learning Group, began a little more than a year ago and now boasts 145 employees who recently moved into new office space near the Tysons Galleria.

Guiding the curriculum is veteran education researcher John Holdren, senior vice president of K12, who worked for nine years at the Core Knowledge Foundation in Charlottesville.

He says the company and its detailed curriculum have been developing at a "breakneck pace." Subjects include language arts with a strong focus on phonics, math, science, history, music and art. Plans are also in the works to offer classes in health, physical education and to offer a virtues curriculum.

Mr. Holdren calls the K12 program, which builds on his work with Core Knowledge, basic, traditional and perhaps broader than what a youngster might get in a traditional classroom. The materials are very "parent-friendly," Mr. Holdren says.

"We are in every case possible building upon the best that has already been done, on research, on excellent and reputable state standards, and in come cases a number of existing textbooks."

Science work will be "very hands-on," for example, and children in kindergarten will be exposed to "a thumbnail view of world history," Mr. Holdren said.

"In the early grades, we´ll be taking kids on a journey through history, from the Stone Age to the Space Age," he said. Older children will be offered a junior Great Books program, exposing them to classic literature.

"From the very beginning, we want to open up the horizon of a child´s mind and imagination," Mr. Holdren said.

While the lesson plans and schedules are online, much of the K12 program is also designed for off-line work, encouraging adult and child interaction. In the early grades, about 25 percent of class work is on the computer and the rest is spent on reading books, working out math problems by hand and conducting science experiments.

Those who enroll in K12 can take an entire semester of courses for $895 or a single course for $125. The kindergarten and first-grade programs, for example, each include 640 lessons, with parents and students encouraged to work at their own pace.

The online school also provides assessments for parents who want to know where their children stand in core subjects such as math and reading. Based on the outcome of the tests, K12 experts will determine an appropriate level for students to begin their studies.

Yale University computer science professor David Gelernter is chief technology adviser for the company. Advisory committee members include Chester E. Finn Jr., who heads the Fordham Foundation in Washington; reading researcher Louisa Moats; and Tom Loveless, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution.

The online school, which announced expansion plans in late December, joins a crowded field of cybereducation ventures.

But K12 CEO Ron Packard says he believes a market is there for his company´s services. Among those who could use those services include summer school and before- and after-school programs, charter schools, virtual schools and Americans living abroad. In February, K12 won approval from the Norristown Area School District in Pennsylvania to manage and provide curriculum for the district´s own virtual charter school, which is expected to enroll as many as 1,500 students by fall.

The company hopes to expand similar services in other states such as Alaska, Texas and California.

"We aim to sell K12 products and services to any person or institution that seeks to use technology to deliver a world-class education," said Mr. Packard. The "e-learning market" say K12 officials, accounts for about $1.3 billion and is projected to reach $6.9 billion by 2003.

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