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September 25, 2007

Some teachers cool on cyber school idea

When Connections Academy, the Baltimore-based for-profit outfit that operates full-time online public schools, put down stakes in 2005 in Oregon, teachers objected loudly. Among their complaints --- the company is a for-profit business, has student-teacher ratios of 50-to-1 and depends on parents to serve as quasi-teachers, spending hours a day providing the kind of hands-on instruction that normally happens in the classroom, according to local news reports. In its first year, Oregon's program had 700 students and was said to be on the verge of doubling that enrollment within the year.

As I report in today's Sun, the Baltimore County public school system plans to test Connections Academy, starting this week with home-schooled students. (See the county's page at the company's website.) The goal is to enroll as many as 200 students for this year-long pilot phase. Students will be expected to meet all of the state's public school requirements --- such as completing 180 days of class and taking all of the state's standardized tests.

Contacted last night, the head of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County said she can envision a place for Connections Academy within the local school system as "a support" to students who might find themselves needing an extended absence from a traditional school, but not something that would be open to the general student population.

Cheryl Bost, TABCO president, added:

"We value more teacher-to-student interaction in the public schools, as opposed to taking taxpayer money and giving it to a company. We're not supportive of it being a replacement" for traditional schools.

A significant drawback, she added, is that if the company is unsuccessful with a student, that child would return to a brick-and-mortar school, forcing teachers to pick up the pieces.

Some wonder why a home-schooling family would want to sign up for a program that would return them to the public school way. Others figure it'll give these parents and students the best of both worlds --- access to public school resources on their own territory, in their own homes. Still others question what business do people have enjoying the benefits of the school system they decided to leave for whatever reasons, be they philosophical or practical.

Teachers, parents, students --- what do you think? Does Connections Academy present an opportunity or an obstacle for public education?

Posted by Gina Davis at 10:14 AM | | Comments (10)
Categories: Baltimore County, Teaching, Trends


I am having a hard time deciding on the answer to this question.

First, I am confused by a few items. While students using Connections Academy [CA] from home will be considered BCPS students and will be responsible for the same standardized tests, is CA still adhering to the Voluntary State Curriculum in terms of the content? From the article, it seemed as though they use their own curriculum.

In addition, I have been teaching for several years now and begun last year a formal teaching program at a university. That said, I have come across mountains of researched teaching practices that continually focus on the teacher-student relationship. If there is an obstacle present in the CA program, it is most definitely that lacking tangible communication line between teacher and student. It also is depending on parents to "monitor" what the student is doing nightly. To what extent will a parent that is not a trained teacher help or harm a student in this process? Is this technology likely to confuse a parent or for a student to mis-use it?

For the most part I am open to fresh ideas as related to the school system. I am interested to see some results from this experiment in Baltimore County. However, if I were a parent, I would definitely be wary without some definitive results from other students trying the same thing near my home.

Hi Joel,

Your questions give me the perfect opportunity to share some of the other information I gathered in my reporting that didn't fit into today's story.

The company does develop its own curriculum. But Mickey Revenaugh, VP for state relations at Connections Academy, says the company develops a curriculum that is based upon the state's standards.

Dale Rauenzahn, the school system's executive director of student support services, said that Connections Academy is expected to provide a curriculum that "parallels the state's standards and Baltimore County's expectations for a rigorous curriculum."

Revenaugh said that CA's teachers are happy with the connections they are able to make with students. She said teachers have said they get to know their students so much better than in a traditional classroom because they talk to them on the phone and see their work on the computer every day.

"In a regular classroom, you kind of get to know students' faces. You get to know those who are doing really well and those who are struggling. But those who are in the middle, you don't get to know so well," Revenaugh explained to me during an interview yesterday afternoon.

She added, "the teachers spend a lot of time on the phone with students, they are constantly exchanging emails through our webmail (which is a closed email system), and they go on field trips with the students."

She also said that the teachers get to know the families of students better than in traditional classroom settings. The "learning coach" --- who is usually a parent but sometimes is another responsible adult close to the student --- is in regular contact with the teacher.

For elementary-age students, the parents are more involved in the hands-on instruction at home, with the teacher serving as more of a guide for the parent. But as the children move into middle school and high school, the roles shift. The teacher is much more involved in the instruction, Revenaugh said.

As an example, Revenaugh pointed to algebra, a subject that many adults have long forgotten. As subjects become more challenging, the teachers assume more responsibility for the direct instruction, she said.

"We're not expecting parents to teach calculus," Revenaugh added. "The teacher and the curriculum do that. The professional teacher has the responsibility for conveying those lessons."

Revenaugh gave me other examples of how CA strives to maintain strong ties between the teachers, students and learning coaches.

For instance, before a student goes online to do lessons, he or she will watch something called a "Teachlet," which she explained is a movie that is used to introduce a concept the way that a teacher in a classroom would do. The student can replay it as many times as necessary before going onto the text that's online.

Another example was what she called "Live Lessons," which are basically web conferences. Students log onto the system for a live, interactive session with the teacher, who appears via a webcam.

I already mentioned the field trips, which Revenaugh said they try to plan on a monthly basis.

Revenaugh said that just as important as teacher satisfaction is student satisfaction.

Like Revenaugh, most adults would agree that today's kids are much more comfortable with using the computer to develop and maintain personal relationships. Think text-messaging, IM'ing, MySpace.

"For kids of this generation, the line between virtual and real is blurry," she said. "This appeals to this generation of students. ... They don't have a barrier to learning this way."

But she added, "For all the whiz-bam technology, the absolute key to this is the teacher."

So, what do you make of any of this?

Given the world today and the added information above, I'd find it difficult to say that this would be an obstacle to public education.

Whether it will work well enough to be considered alongside public, private, and homeschooling is another story entirely. Nevertheless, in a time when we cry out No Child Left Behind, any novel way to accomplish that noble goal should probably get a chance to take a shot at it.

And that's exactly what the school system and Connections Academy bill this as ... another avenue for reaching those students who need something other than the traditional school setting for whatever reason.

To their credit, folks with the school system and CA make no bones about the idea that this probably isn't for everybody.

But, as Mickey Revenaugh (the company's VP) said, it's a god-send for those who need it.

People will be looking to next summer's state test results for evidence of whether CA is working. We in the media will be among them. But I, for one, will remind readers of the hazards of reading too much --- one way or the other --- into results that are based on so short of a time-frame. The reality is that it's going to take more than a few months to glean whether CA's approach is good enough to ensure students who are learning this way are just as prepared, if not better, than their brick-and-mortar peers.

These are some good follow-up responses to the original piece. I'm not exactly sure what Revenaugh means in the following quote: "those who are in the middle, you don't get to know so well." I suppose that students who are really exceeding or really struggling tend to "stick out" for one reason or another. However, I'm not sure if this method will really be the solution to connecting with students performing in the "middle."

My personal thoughts on home schooling certainly cloud my impression of this. I can think of some really great uses for this kind of connection in the general education setting. Teachers can, using this technology, connect to students in classrooms far away. I completely understand that there are some students who simply cannot function in the classroom setting with a lot of other students. For them, this might be ideal. However, I am a proponent of creating a sense of community within my classroom. While student-aged Americans are quickly becoming adept at maneuvering through the latest techno-crazes, it may also be serving to distance them on a personal level. I think that this kind of technology might encourage more distance.

As a final thought, I agree that the immediate testing results would be too short-sighted to be used as an accurate judge of the success or failure of CA.

Yes, Revenaugh's point was that the students who excel and those who struggle tend to stick out. In her estimation, CA's teachers get to know all of their students more intimately because of the frequent one-on-one communication.

As I dug around for information on CA, I came across an annual "Parent Satisfaction Survey," which was conducted by an independent market research company earlier this year and covered the 2006-2007 school year.

As with all surveys, it's important to know the size of the group surveyed, the response rate, and all that good stuff. In this case (according to L.J. Shapiro & Associates, the group that did the survey), about 70 percent of the parents responded to an emailed invitation to participate in the survey. That amounted to nearly 3,580 responses. Only one response per household was accepted and the company had no access to individual responses.

For what it's worth, here are some interesting results from that survey (at least, I thought they were interesting) ...

96% of parents rated CA "excellent or good"

90% of parents said their children are "enjoying the program"

94% of parents said that their children are "making good progress"

96% of parents said that CA's curriculum is "high quality"

On the topic of a high-quality curriculum, one parent wrote, "What I like best is the fact that there are specialized teachers in each and every subject checking my children's work in detail and giving them feedback. This helps students perform above and beyond the standard. My kids are working their behinds off and feeling good about doing it."

94% of parents agreed or strongly agreed with this statement, "The use of the computer and Learning Management System is improving the learning experience."

(The Learning Management System is CA's computerized system that provides grade tracking, scheduling and communication between the home and the school.)

Obviously there are plenty of people who think the world of this program. Even Manfred Smith, the home-schooling advocate who I quoted in my story today, said he wasn't quibbling one way or the other with the program's quality. His concern is directed at the potential financial pay-off for CA and he questions the fairness of allowing any private company --- CA or otherwise --- to provide services to the school system without having to compete against others for the privilege.

The school system seems to be saying that CA isn't a shoo-in should the district's leaders decide to go all the way with a full-time online option for kids.

Dale Rauenzahn, executive director of student support services, said the system is checking out plenty of other options. He told me that when it comes time to decide whether to bring CA on-board for good, he and other district officials will be looking at how well students are faring on the state's standardized tests, among other things.

However, even Dale recognizes that the system may have to make a move based on incomplete information --- decisions on the district's operating budget kick into high gear early in the year (January, February), which is well before results come in from the High School Assessments (given in January and May) as well as the Maryland School Assessments (given in April).

At best, the system will have anecdotal information from parents, students and teachers to go on when it's time to decide whether to ask the county school board to support funding a contract with CA or another company like it.

By the way, here's the link to a PDF of the parent survey I mentioned in my previous comment.

Just thought I'd share comments that have come in response to today's story from readers who responded in the "comments" field directly below the story. (Found via this link:

Don't get me wrong ... I'm NOT encouraging you to skip out on commenting directly to the blog!! I just thought I'd share these other comments that I found ... maybe we can get these folks to join us on the blog sometime.

Woodstock, MD
1) This program is not about homeschooling. It is an alternative public school program. I think it's a great idea, and will be a wonderful option for some families. I also think it should have been "marketed" to all families with school-age children, not just to homeschooling families. The fact that the children are not in a certain public building all day is irrelevant to homeschooling. These children will be Baltimore County Public School students, just like any other, they only have a different curriculum access.
2) Isn't this rather "last minute" ? Who wants to make this drastic a change 3 weeks into the academic year? This will be very hard on children who were not already using an on-line learning system.

Thanks for the coverage on this new twist in Baltimore County ... and perhaps changes in the state to come.

Baltimore, MD
I think anything that provides more choice for families is a wonderful thing. I would like to see all students and their families free to choose any school they want-traditional public, charter, private, homeschool or virtual school. I think having choice is empowering, and would allow all students the opportunity to thrive in the best environment for them.

Baltimore, MD
This seems to be a great program for students who would otherwise not be able to attend public school. From what I have read on the Connections Academy website ( ) the school uses trained state-certified teachers in addition to the help of a "learning coach", which I assume is the parent, to help facilitate and administer the learning process. This is very different than the home school programs that I have worked with for my children. Many regular home school programs do not have enough support for parents; I think this is definitely an advantage over traditional home schooling.

The curriculum CA uses is good. The public school politics of CA is pretty bad. Also, the "Learning Coach" is the one that does the work - not the "teacher." I am the one sitting there for five or more hours a day going through the curriculum with my child - and I'm not getting paid. So it's a win, win for CA on the money front.

The CA survey's numbers are probably more off that they let on, given that CA schools have a HIGH student turnover rate. Only families enrolled at the time of survey at the end of the year would have been polled, not all the hundreds that withdrew before that. As for student teacher ratios, I teach high school English for a CA school, and I have nearly 200 students, and that's just one of the half a dozen classes that I'm responsible for (although not all of my classes are that big). I know CA works great for the right families, (I know because I work with them!) but don't let impressive survey numbers fool you either. I'd estimate that at most only 1/4 of the students in my "homeroom" stayed in the program from beginning to end, but with open enrollment for most of the year, they were just continuously replaced. On average, I had about 30-40 homeroom students at any given time, but now I'm down to less than 30.

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