- The Washington Times - Monday, January 21, 2002

These schools have no classrooms, no desks, no long rows of lockers.
Virtual schools where students take high school courses entirely online have sprouted around the area in recent months and are hailed as the wave of the future.
Homework and class assignments are sent to the students over the Internet. They are the same assignments given to students who take courses the old-fashioned way in the classroom. The assignments are graded and returned to online students via computer.
After a successful pilot last summer, Prince William County last week began enrolling students at its virtual school program for the second semester. Last spring, Fairfax County began its own online campus for high school students who had scheduling conflicts or needed a few more courses to graduate.
In Maryland, the Department of Education is planning a virtual school a series of courses aligned with state standards that is slated to go online in the fall. Eight counties in the state, including Montgomery and Anne Arundel, have tried online courses with success. In states like Kentucky, Michigan and Illinois, virtual schools are turning out achievers and graduates, sometimes at rates higher than those seen in traditional classrooms.
Early results point to success. Last summer, 51 students enrolled in the five courses offered by the Prince William County Virtual School. Only two withdrew, said Matthew Eline, a former teacher who coordinates the virtual school. Thirty-seven of the 49 remaining students passed.
"That is a really good rate, considering most students were repeating the [courses]," he said. Eleven of the 14 students who took Standards of Learning courses also passed the tests.
This semester, he said, the school expected 100 students to enroll, and it expanded from five courses to 10. Fairfax has expanded from one course in the pilot last spring to seven courses this semester.
The reason for the program's success, Mr. Eline said, is that online courses tend to be more intensive. "In a classroom, a student's attention could wander, but when they are sitting at a computer, they are fully focused," he said.
Apart from the convenience, virtual schools are educators' answers to the overwhelming problems of teacher shortage and classroom overcrowding.
They also can help students who might be uncomfortable in a traditional classroom setting. Students meet three times a year in Prince William County: at the start of the year, during the midterm and during final exams. Many prefer it that way.
"Last semester, I had two female students who said they felt constrained inside a regular classroom and just felt more comfortable doing the course online," Mr. Eline said.
Maggie Mauldin, a 15-year-old from Woodbridge Senior High School, said she enrolled in the ninth-grade English course because she wanted to spend the summer at home instead of at school.
"I don't like to work with a lot of people around and I hate giving presentations in class," said Maggie, who added that she was more at home before a computer than talking in front of a class.
"Some students don't hesitate to ask questions as they would in a classroom," said Sandy Todd, the program manager of Online Campus in Fairfax.
Despite their benefits, online classrooms are not meant to replace traditional classes or the experience of going to school, educators say. "It will not replace the high school experience," he said.
Elizabeth Glowa, coordinator of the online program in Maryland, agreed.
"It is a different level of instruction," she said. "In an online environment you have a tremendous level of activity that is not verbal but written. In a well-done product, the level of interaction actually goes up."
In Prince William, registration for the virtual school was expected to open Thursday and Friday, and already some out-of-county students had joined in, from Clark and Stafford counties and Warrenton, Mr. Eline said. At the Virtual High School at PWCS, courses are aligned with the Virginia standards, allowing students from outside the county to take them.
In Maryland, the online courses are targeted at students in smaller school divisions, particularly where teacher shortages have made it harder to find good, certified teachers, state education officials said.
Barbara Reeves, director of instructional technology for the Maryland State Department of Education, said the department hoped to enroll 300 students per semester, starting this fall.
Educators say they also are learning. In two weeks, Fairfax will start classes on how to teach online something no one has done before.
"Teaching online is a very different experience, and we are trying to stay ahead of the game," Mrs. Todd said.

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