Virtual schools soon reality in Mass.

Greenfield Superintendent Susan Hollins. (Greenfield Recorder) Greenfield Superintendent Susan Hollins.
By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / May 5, 2010

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The schools would have no desks or lockers, not even a cafeteria to trade gossip over a plate of chicken nuggets. Instead, students could take classes from the comfort of their homes or a neighborhood coffeehouse, as teachers convey lessons via the Internet.

This is a snapshot of virtual public schools in Massachusetts, which could open as soon as this fall, enabling hundreds of students to take all their classes online.

The first such school is poised to open this fall in Greenfield, a small city of rolling pastures and a quaint downtown in Western Massachusetts. Just last week, its School Committee set an enrollment goal of up to 600 students, and is seeking a principal to further develop the “Massachusetts Virtual Academy at Greenfield,’’ which will be open to students statewide in kindergarten through grade 8.

“We’re looking to create a terrific 21st-century school district,’’ said Susan Hollins, the superintendent in Greenfield, which began a push for virtual schools last year with state leaders.

The schools are being developed under a little-known provision of the state’s sweeping education law enacted in January. The law, which urges districts to pursue innovations, gave local school committees authority to create public schools that operate almost entirely in cyberspace.

State education leaders say they expect the schools will appeal to a small fraction of students statewide, who would have to apply for entry. But it could be a boon for students who are bored or unchallenged by curriculums in traditional schools, and could benefit students who can’t attend regular school because of a medical condition, expulsion, or incarceration, among other reasons.

State education leaders say virtual schools could even help reduce the statewide high school dropout rate, providing another alternative to students who struggle within the confines of a school building because of social issues or rigid time structures.

“I think that for some students a virtual environment for all schooling or most schooling may make sense,’’ said Mitchell Chester, the state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education. “But I don’t think online learning for all programs will be appropriate for most students. Learning at its heart is a social endeavor. . . . I think for most students face-to-face instruction is the medium that gives them most benefit.’’

Having students tap the Internet for all their courses marks the next evolution of online learning in Massachusetts. Typically, school districts, mostly high schools, turn to the Web to supplement elective course offerings. About 40 percent of school districts had at least one student enrolled in an online course last school year, state officials said.

But across the nation, virtual public schools have been growing in popularity in such states as Texas, Colorado, and Arizona, online education specialists say.

Convenience is a big draw. Students at virtual schools can pop into class at any hour of the day, even at midnight. Teachers assign an assortment of readings and projects, and hold office hours, but rarely deliver lectures.

While students don’t have to worry about making class on time, every minute they spend on a virtual-school website will be clocked by administrators. They will have to meet deadlines for homework and exams.

Massachusetts students will also have to comply with state requirements for class time, which in high school means completing 990 hours of “structured learning’’ annually. Their classes each year will have to match up with the state’s academic standards, which specify what subject matter should be taught at each grade level.

There will be times, however, when some students will have to go inside a traditional school. MCAS exams, for example, must be taken under the watch of a proctor. Virtual high school students will be required to pass the 10th grade MCAS in English, math, and science, just like their peers who attend traditional schools.

When Hollins floated the idea of a virtual school last year, she said, she encountered some skepticism, confusion, and an array of questions from the community. She brought in specialists and eventually the School Committee settled on a partner, K12 Inc., a publicly-traded Virginia company that runs public virtual schools in 25 states.

The city had hoped to open the school last fall, but was stopped by state education leaders, who said virtual schools would require legislative approval. As luck would have it, the Legislature was beginning to embark on the education bill, and Greenfield educators worked with their legislators and state education officials to include a provision on virtual schools.

Last week, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education sent out proposed regulations on virtual schools for public comment. Once the board approves the final regulations, which could occur next month, then local districts can start opening the schools.

Boston has no plans to open a virtual public school, preferring to use online courses as a supplement to traditional schools.

The schools have not been without controversy. Some district leaders worry about the financial consequences of allowing the virtual schools to enroll students from other districts. In such cases, the state will require the outside districts to pay $5,000 to the virtual school for each of their students who attend.

Some educators have also raised concerns about districts using public money to contract with for-profit companies.

Chris Martes, Foxborough schools superintendent, said he thinks the better model for virtual learning for most students is using online courses to supplement programs in traditional schools. He questions whether virtual schools would work for the elementary- and middle-school grades, when the development of social skills is critical.

Even state Senator Stanley Rosenberg, an Amherst Democrat who assisted Greenfield with legislative approval, said he hopes students at virtual schools will still spend time in regular schools so they can participate in extracurricular activities and interact with students.

“Online learning is a tool that allows students to enhance their education,’’ Rosenberg said. “But it’s important for them not to spend 12 years at home looking at a computer.’’

James Vaznis can be reached at

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