Education leaders in Arizona have approved the creation of five virtual schools as part of a pilot program that allows elementary school children to attend class through a home computer.

Members of the State Board for Charter Schools selected the five schools from a field of 19 candidates.

“We’ve been working on this for two years,” said Damian Creamer. Creamer runs the Primavera Technical Learning Center in Chandler, Ariz., which was among the schools to receive board approval on July 21 to launch internet learning. “We have a desire to bring this to a much greater population than just students in Chandler,” he said.

Four other schools already offer electronic learning, including Sequoia Choice, an electronic charter school, and the Arizona public school districts of Deer Valley and Mesa.

The virtual schools will offer internet-based courses in which children log on from home, get passwords, eMail accounts, and class assignments via computer.

Students in kindergarten through 12th grade can attend the online schools as long as they have not been home-schooled immediately before enrolling.

There are no district boundaries, and students from any region can enroll in any of the online schools. Some of the charter academies require that students have a home computer and an internet connection. Proponents say that the creation of the virtual schools will provide educational opportunities to youth in rural areas.

To ensure that students are matching the skills of their traditionally schooled peers, Arizona law requires that pupils in virtual schools take all standardized tests. The schools themselves must also document the educational progress of their students or face a “failing” label and possible closure.

The state’s pilot program is limited to 14 electronic schools offering education from kindergarten through 12th grade for the current academic year. The project was to have ended in June, but advocates successfully lobbied state lawmakers to allow the project to continue for another year.

According to the Arizona Republic newspaper, the limited slots created a frenzy among charter operators who wanted a chance to profit from the latest education experiment in the country. Proponents say online schooling will reach children who have struggled in traditional schools, while critics say there is no research on the real costs of cyberschools. Arizona Virtual Academy is partnering with K12 Inc., an online program developed by former Secretary of Education William Bennett. Originally, K12 Inc. targeted home-schooled children and charged tuition. But now K12 Inc. is joining with charter schools across the country that can offer the program free because taxpayers pick up the bill.

Here are the newly approved virtual schools: Humanities and Sciences High School; Phoenix Special Programs and Academies; Pinnacle Education Inc.; Primavera Technical Learning Center; and Sierra Vista Charter Schools Inc.

Links:

Arizona State Board for Charter Schools
http://www.asbcs.state.az.us/asbcs/

Arizona Department of Education
http://www.ade.state.az.us/