In 2004, the Lawrence school district expected 25 students to enroll in its brand-new virtual school.
But administrators clearly had underestimated the popularity of the school. That fall, 167 students — more than six times the expected number — enrolled.
And the students continue to sign up for classes.
This fall, administrators are preparing to educate 1,350 students through LVS. Only about 100 of those are from Douglas County; the remainder live in other Kansas counties.
“On average, we continue to increase 300 or so students a year,” said Principal Gary Lewis. “We’ve had such an overwhelming response. We had, in the last three days, 48 students enroll.”
Enrollment continues through Aug. 21.
A new trend has emerged for the 2009-2010 school year — more students are moving from private schools to virtual education.
“With the economy the way it’s going and the expense of private school tuition, we’ve seen our private school student enrollment increase dramatically because it’s saving parents money,” said Lewis.
But every family has a different reason for choosing an online education for their children — accelerated learning opportunities, personalized lessons, flexibility, social or behavioral issues, or the fact that their student is simply having a difficult time keeping up.
And then there’s Trina Rockwell, who hopes to travel a lot this year to keep herself and her children preoccupied while her husband, Roy, serves overseas in the U.S. Air Force.
She enrolled three of her children, Alex, 12, Victoria, 10, and Madison, 5, in the Lawrence Virtual School.
“This was the perfect option to be able to take it with us and still have some accountability,” Rockwell said.
Her children have been home-schooled and have also attended traditional classes. But the flexibility of Lawrence Virtual School hit home with Rockwell.
“My husband’s going to be gone for the year and when he does get to come home ... we won’t have to try and work it around a public school setting,” Rockwell said. “Educationally, I’m hoping for them to progress just like they would at a normal school.”
Although there isn’t a face-to-face interaction between teacher and pupil, Lewis says virtual school isn’t a “sit and get” type of education.
“That’s a misconception that many people have,” Lewis said. “Yes, we have curriculum that’s available online, but we’re also teaching online. We’re interacting, collaborating, communicating with students and teaching them.”
Because of that, Superintendent Rick Doll thinks the district does virtual education the right way.
“It used to be that to become educated, you had to go to the physical place where the educated person was,” Doll said. “Think how rapidly that’s changed. Movement from the knowledge is no longer contained in a classroom or in a teacher’s mind.”
While LVS is growing in leaps and bounds, the district’s bricks-and-mortar enrollment faces a stagnant year.
“Our leveling off of traditional enrollment isn’t so much (that students are instead) going to the virtual school, it’s just that housing starts have slowed,” said Doll. “Lawrence itself is just not growing as it did 10 years ago.”
State funding change
Starting with the 2008-2009 school year, virtual school students were counted separately from their traditional counterparts for purposes of state funding.
The state changed the law and made funding equal for every virtual school student in the state, no matter which school they were enrolled in. They also separated the money from districts’ general funds to ensure virtual school money was spent on virtual school students.
“You had some superintendents in the state who were taking virtual school funds and using them to pay for bricks-and-mortar education,” said Lewis.
Now that virtual school students have a separate funding line, there’s no way to move that money into any other fund.
For a full-time virtual school student, school districts receive 105 percent of base state aid. While it may seem that virtual schools are getting more money, they really aren’t. Like their bricks-and-mortar counterparts, they still receive extra funds for special education and at-risk students, but they don’t receive extra dollars in other categories — such as transportation, or low or high enrollment.
“(The extra) 5 percent is supposed to capsulate any of the weightings that you would need for virtual school students,” Lewis said. “They’re actually paying us less than what they would be paying the Lawrence bricks-and mortar-school students.”
But that’s not stopping Lewis from ensuring his teachers are providing a solid education for LVS students.
“It’s become an option in education that’s a viable option for folks,” said Lewis.