Nebraska's first virtual school appeals to homeschoolers

Omaha Public Schools is appealing to home school students to take part in Nebraska's first district-run virtual classroom. The response has been mixed. (Photo by Ben Bohall, NET News)
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August 3, 2016 - 6:45am

Omaha Public Schools is set to open its Virtual Learning School this month. It will be the first district-run online school in Nebraska, and it’s chosen a specific student demographic to appeal to. 


On a Saturday afternoon, Shellie Garrett is reading aloud the Emily Dickenson poem “Hope is the thing with Feathers.” Across the living room, her three adopted children are sitting, listening carefully, and taking notes.

For the past five years, Shellie and her husband Nolan have home schooled their kids. Nolan, who is in the military, is often deployed for long periods of time and as Shellie puts it, homeschooling allows the family more flexibility to spend time together, and cater to each child’s individual needs.

“We wanted to teach to their particular interest and to who they are and help their challenges become strengths in their lives,” Garrett said.

The Garrett’s story isn’t all that uncommon. The U.S. Department of Education found that between 2003 to 2013 the nation saw a more than 60 percent rise in homeschooling. Last year’s data shows there were just more than 8,000 home-schooled students in Nebraska. While 8,000 constitutes only about 2.5 percent of the state’s children, public school districts have taken notice. And one of them is targeting the group for a new project.

At the DoSpace digital library in Omaha, Wendy Loewenstein is talking a small group of homeschooling parents through a presentation on something called virtual learning. Omaha Public Schools is piloting the state’s first district-run online courses. They’re calling it the Omaha Virtual School. It will be offered free to kindergarten through eighth-grade level students – exclusively home school students. The courses will include core subjects and electives and each student will also receive an OPS-issued laptop. Loewenstein is director of the new program.

“In looking at what other states are doing to prepare their students for 21st century learning environments and college career readiness, this is a gap here in the state of Nebraska. We can prepare our students to be online learners, irregardless of what career field they choose,” Loewenstein said.

The catch for these home school students is they have to elect for dual enrollment in OPS and sign up for at least two classes to take part in the program. Those classes will be held at the DoSpace and supervised by a virtual instructor and student learning advisor, or social worker. Some home school advocates have their reservations.

Kathryn Dillow is president of Nebraska Homeschool and a home-school parent. She says this blended model of virtual learning, that takes the bulk of the education responsibility from the parent, could potentially go against the fundamental principles behind homeschooling.

“We advocate for parent-taught and parent-controlled in the home. We really do believe that’s what’s best,” Dillow said. “Is the parent OK with sharing oversight of the education of the child with those two other issues?.. That is a part of the concerns raised by individuals in the homeschool community. This is coming back under the state accreditation requirements. It’s something the public school is putting on so there are participation requirements and the parent needs to decide if they’re OK with that.”

Another question is how effective is virtual learning?

Michael Barbour is director of doctoral studies with the Farrington College of Education at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut. He’s studied virtual learning extensively and says effectiveness is relative to how it’s used and who uses it. Most studies show in a full-time capacity, virtual learning typically fails. As a supplement to face-to-face instruction, it can be useful. It also depends on who is using it. Research has shown some students don’t respond well to virtual learning’s multimedia-based curriculum.

“There are just some students who aren’t going to be engaged by that. In much the same way that some students aren’t going to be engaged in a face-to-face classroom," Barbour said. "The difference is in a face-to-face classroom a teacher can look around and recognize when they’ve lost their students. And a good teacher can make accommodations for trying to re-engage that student, where a computer can’t.”

And Loewenstein says that’s why she thinks OPS’ blended model is the answer for Nebraska public schools’ first foray into utilizing online learning:

“It’s that face-to-face, community-type feeling that will really add to our program and ultimately make it an effective one.”

As Shellie Garrett has discovered since she and her husband first adopted and began homeschooling their kids, each student’s educational needs vary. She’s just as likely to rely on online materials to supplement her kids’ educations, as she is class textbooks. She says catering to those individual needs is a big part of what makes being a parent teacher so challenging, and yet rewarding.  

“Their learning style can sometime evolve and change, depending on their maturity level. Adapting to that is a constant issue and struggle. But it’s also joyful and fun. That’s one of the best parts of it for me,” Garrett said.

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