Online school aims to draw students from 9 midstate counties

jwilliams@macon.comJuly 26, 2013 

Call it home schooling with a twist.

Starting this fall, students in Twiggs County will be able to learn through an online school, foregoing daily attendance at a traditional brick-and-mortar building.

The Twiggs County public school system is offering a virtual education program through a national online provider called K12, and it’s inviting students from eight other school districts, including Bibb and Houston counties, to join in. The company provides online curriculums for virtual public and private schools, as well as home-schoolers.

There’s an information session on the program Saturday, and open enrollment starts Thursday. The program is free to families, and K12 provides all educational materials. Students must have access to a home computer with high-speed Internet.

It’s another step in the march toward online education.

“We’ve seen a growth in virtual education in recent years,” said Matt Cardoza, director of communications for the state Department of Education. “It’s not a bad thing.”

Some students have different learning styles, he said, and there are other reasons -- religious, social or personal, for example, that make virtual schools a sound option for parents. But it doesn’t work for all students.

And while virtual public schools do bring in money from the state for each student enrolled, as any other public school does, Cardoza said they provides services -- such as specialized classes -- that students might not have access to otherwise.

“We’re trying to get ahead of the trend,” Twiggs Superintendent Elgin Dixon said of the new program.

Dixon said that while ideally every student would be in the county’s brick-and-mortar schools, he hopes the virtual program will bring more students who live in Twiggs County back into the school district.

“The goal is to get every student who lives in Twiggs County enrolled in Twiggs County schools,” he said.

The program is also open to students in other midstate counties, including Baldwin, Bibb, Bleckley, Crawford, Houston, Jones, Peach and Wilkinson.

Dixon said he has no specific enrollment goal for the first year. There has been a little interest as word of the program gets out, but there hasn’t been as much as he had hoped. About 25 people attended the first informational meeting in June.

Dixon was an assistant superintendent in the Dublin school system last year when it introduced a virtual program run through K12. Dublin’s superintendent, Chuck Ledbetter, said the virtual school enrolled about 300 students across the state, about 30 of whom were local students. This year the system is limiting enrollment to students in the Dublin area because of problems administering state exams, and he expects to enroll 20 to 30 students again. Students enrolled in grades 3-12 are required to take state mandated exams, such as End-of-Course Tests, at a designated location.

“Overall, it’s been very positive,” Ledbetter said. “Our parents feel like the curriculum is very challenging. The academic rigor is there.”

Ledbetter said most of the students enrolled online are former home-schoolers looking for a curriculum that doesn’t cost anything, although some enrollees are students who have struggled in a traditional school setting.

“It’s certainly different, but I think in the long run things like this and hybrids will become more common,” he said.

K12 also provides the curriculum for a statewide online public school called Georgia Cyber Academy. It’s just one of several online public schools in Georgia that seem to be growing.

Another statewide online public school called Georgia Connections Academy began in 2011. In its first year, 598 students were enrolled in kindergarten through eighth grade. In 2012, that number had increased to 2,000 students, in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Students enrolled in Twiggs’ virtual school can participate in the system’s extracurricular activities in the same way that traditional students do.

Students will also be able to choose from a full-time virtual or a hybrid program, in which they can participate in some classes on site and take others online. Students who complete all the requirements will receive a high school diploma from the Twiggs County school system.

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