BY MARTA HEPLER DRAHOS
---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Micah Thoreson is already settled with his schoolwork on his favorite living room chair when other students are riding the morning bus to school.
He’s done with his school day before most students start lunch.
Micah, 12, of Maple City, is one of hundreds of area students studying in virtual schools this year, either partially or fully. Online learning gives them the flexibility to work or compete around their schoolwork, to accelerate their learning or take courses their schools don’t offer, or to travel with their families while still being counted as local students.
Peak hours for online learning are 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., said Suttons Bay Public School District superintendent Mike Murray.
“Education is a different landscape these days,” said Todd Neibauer, director of technology for Traverse City Area Public Schools. “The nature of what people want is changing, and we’re just responding to what they want.”
State law allows public school students in grades five-12 to enroll in up to two online courses in an academic term. But school districts and intermediate school districts can apply for a “seat time waiver” from the state, which gives a certain percentage of their students the opportunity to take more than two online courses at a time.
About 500 TCAPS students studied partially online last year, Neibauer said. Another 20 were fully online. But that number is expected to rise this year with the launch of TCAPS Online Academy, a new full-time online school option this fall for students in grades six through 12. The district’s seat time waiver allows up to 25 percent of its students to study full-time online.
Micah, a homeschooled seventh-grader, began studying online last fall through the Suttons Bay Virtual School. His math, language arts and social studies classes are taught online by Suttons Bay teachers; his science class by one of the district’s online providers.
“We chose online because he can pretty much do it at his own pace, which is a huge plus for him,” said mom Amy Thoreson, who works from home. “He’s really intelligent. He loves to learn but he didn’t like all the interactions that go on in a regular school program: the other kids, the breaks. And he’s actually doing it at a faster pace than with a regular school program.”
Being enrolled in the district allowed Micah to represent Suttons Bay last year in the region’s spelling bee. It also lets him come to school for classes he can’t get online, like the French culture class he’s taking now. Band, choir, gym and sports are other face-to-face options.
Micah’s experience prompted his sister, Jenaya Thoreson, 9, to start virtual school this fall. Only instead of enrolling in Suttons Bay Virtual School, the fourth-grader chose Great Lakes K12 Virtual School, a new public school consortium of the Crawford-AuSable, Manistee and Suttons Bay Public Schools.
The consortium or “super virtual district” will allow the schools to compete with larger cyber schools run by universities contracting with corporations, said Murray, who estimates Great Lakes will draw 200 to 300 students its first year.
“Before the consortium, we had online learning that was available to our students in our ISD and the ISDs in surrounding counties through Suttons Bay Virtual School,” Murray said. “We realized very quickly that small schools aren’t going to be able to compete on their own. So we formed an inter-local agreement that allows us to work together and share our resources and powers. Draw a line across the state to Clare and north to the bridge, and that’s where we can take students from.”
While many once looked askance at online learning, considering it a “fad” or the next “correspondence school,” most now recognize it as a legitimate and important component of education. Still, virtual schools aren’t without their detractors.
“Certainly we see a certain number of students come into it with unrealistic expectations,” Murray said. “They think it’s going to be fun and games, and it’s not. There’s a lot of self-discipline and organization involved.
“We also realized that students need mentors to help keep them organized, stay on track, to troubleshoot and advocate for students. When we put that kind of mentorship in, we triple our success rate.”
Katie Belanger, a mentor and director of online learning at Suttons Bay, said a mentor is required by the state to have contact with virtual students at least once weekly and often has more than that. She also encourages online students and teachers to reach out to each other whenever either has questions — something Murray said is easier for some students outside the traditional classroom setting.
Additionally, most online courses are set up so that students have to achieve a certain score on an assignment before they can open another.
“It keeps students from doing junk work and plowing through and failing everything,” Belanger said.
Murray said another common fear is that online learning will “ruin” public schools as we know them.
“We heard those same criticisms when the U.S. moved from an agricultural to an industrial society. And now, going from an industrial to an information society, we’re going through a shift,” he said. “If everything that’s being done is changing, then education needs to change as well.
As for the criticism that online learning will downgrade the role of the teacher, “What we found is that the teacher is the key role in online learning,” he said. “They know online students better than they know their face-to-face students.”
Micah Thoreson hopes to complete the eighth grade in May so that he can have an extended summer.
“I like that I can go at my own pace,” he said.