Since it opened in 2006, the Chicago Virtual charter School has become an educational lifeline for students who were not thriving in traditional schools.
By bringing engaging online curriculum along with box loads of traditional classroom materials into the home environment, students can learn at their own pace. they benefit from the monitoring and motivation provided by an at-home “learning coach”—usually a parent—and assessment-based, targeted instruction from highly skilled certified teachers. CVCS students have group learning experiences during the half-day they spend weekly at the school’s learning center, where coaches also network and receive training.
“The two major paradigms for thinking about education are brick-and-mortar schools and homeschooling,” says Dr. Bruce Law, CVCS head of School. “We are a hybrid between brick-and-mortar and virtual instruction, which is totally new.”
The first virtual charter school in Illinois, CVCS was established with the backing of Arne Duncan, then the CEO of Chicago public Schools and now the U.S. Secretary of education. today, the school serves about 600 students in grades K through 11—with 12th grade starting next year. it uses the widely acclaimed curriculum developed by K12 inc., the online education company that also manages the school.
“Even though we have a lot of cutting edge technology, it would be incorrect to say this is all online,” Law says. in addition to a computer and printer, each student receives boxes filled with materials like books, games, paints, microscopes, soil samples and math manipulatives.
Students choose the school for a variety of reasons. For the family whose children have severe peanut allergies, CVCS is a lifesaver. By studying primarily at home, the children avoided the frequent allergic reactions that landed them in the hospital when they attended a traditional school. For another child, enrolling at CVCS broke the cycle of behavior problems that were a barrier to academic achievement. the jarring transitions and overstimulation common in schools contributed to her problems. “the home environment is much more conducive to what the child needed for learning,” Law says. “She comes to a traditional school once a week to be with her same-age peers, but she doesn’t have to have that experience 5? hours a day five days a week.”
The blend of structure and flexibility in the curriculum allows students to learn at their own pace. At the K-8 level, students take the time they need to learn a concept or skill. A teacher provides as much support as necessary when a child is struggling, but students move on only after they’ve mastered 80 percent of the material. By the same token, advanced students can move ahead quickly. that has transformed the educational experience for students who are gifted and those with learning disabilities.
At the high school level, the at-home learning coach acts more as a mentor than as a monitor, while the in-school component is more of a project-based learning internship. “We want to get them oriented toward their future,” says Law. “What you do now connects to what comes next for you.”
While many schools struggle to involve parents in school, parental involvement is built into the structure of CVCS. teachers deliver the curriculum and assessments, but the parent (or other adult) coach plays a critical role supervising students’ work, keeping them focused and helping them work through challenges.
In training classes, coaches learn the most effective ways to motivate students to do schoolwork as well as specific tips for helping with math and reading, Law says. “We provide all the background and support that learning coaches will need to help them become more effective managers of education in their home.”
Since CVCS opened its virtual doors, enrollment has nearly doubled each year—and there is a waiting list. The reason is results, as evidenced by student test scores. the school meets or exceeds the federal Adequate Yearly progress standards and the Illinois Standard Achievement tests in reading, math, and science.
“If you look at all the predictive factors for an inner-city school,” says Law, “we beat the predictors because of the strength of the curriculum, the teachers, and the parents or learning coaches.”
For more information about the Chicago Virtual Charter School and K12, Inc., please visit www.k12.com/educators.