Hazel Park, Madison HeightsJuly 19, 2012
Free home-based online learning comes to K-8 students
By Andy Kozlowski
C & G Staff Writer
MADISON HEIGHTS/HAZEL PARK — A tuition-free home-based online learning program is now available to students in kindergarten through eighth-grade in Oakland, Genesee, Lapeer, Livingston, Washtenaw and Wayne counties.
The Virtual Learning Academy Consortium is a full-fledged substitute for brick-and-mortal schools, provided by the Oakland Intermediate School District. VLAC is flexible, letting students learn a complete curriculum from home at their own pace on their own time, with a support staff of certified teachers available six days a week.
Want to squeeze in a trip to the nature center for hands-on learning to supplement a course in life sciences? Need to move around the country, but want to keep learning without skipping a beat? Now you can.
Space permitting, a student in VLAC won’t miss out on electives at the physical school buildings, either, as they can still participate in them while doing their core classes at home.
The program even provides a computer and Internet access to those who request it, even if the student family already has these things. Technology staff will come to your home to install the equipment and maintain it, and help is available via a 24-hour hotline.
Like the program itself, the computer, Internet, installation and technical support are all free. The family simply returns the computer at the end of the program or pays Oakland Schools its depreciated value if they wish to keep it.
The only caveat is that the program works best with students who are self-motivated to do their work without a supervisor constantly looking over their shoulder.
Also, a parent or guardian must work with the student as a “learning guide” for three to five hours a day. Students must put in 180 days to keep pace, about five to six hours a day; they can also utilize the summer months if they wish.
Enrollees take a placement test to determine the gaps in their education, or exceptional strengths, as the case may be. The curriculum is then tailored to their needs.
“Maybe we know they’re in fourth-grade math, but there’s a gap in fractions, so we’ll give them more experience in fractions before moving on,” said Vickie Markavitch, superintendent for Oakland Schools. “It’s possible also that a fourth-grader has already completed all of fourth-grade math and can go straight to fifth-grade math.”
A box of print and online materials provides step-by-step instructions for each lesson plan, thoroughly detailed but easy to understand, charting the student’s course.
“It’s very clear and well-organized, taking the parent and the student through the lesson each day, with hints to the parent in terms of how to help a youngster understand a certain thing,” Markavitch said.
Everything the student does on the computer is also logged into an instructional system, so the parents and the students can always see their progress on quizzes and activities, helping them identify where they’re doing well or where they need extra repetition.
There is one supervising teacher for every 40 students, available by phone, email, Web chat or in person, with office hours as early as 8 a.m. on some days and as late as 8 p.m. on others. Someone will always be on call on Saturdays.
As more students sign up, VLAC will add an online administrator to provide an extra level of accountability. It’s all part of ensuring the program is a complete service meeting all of a student’s needs.
“As Michigan decided to go down this path toward virtual learning academies, one of our concerns in Oakland County was to make sure that whatever programs were offered to parents were of high quality,” Markavitch said. “We also wanted to make sure the business operations of the program were transparent, because it would be using public taxpayer dollars.”
After a great deal of analysis, the Calvert School curriculum was selected. The Calvert curriculum provides a well-rounded education with a layered approach that integrates different disciplines around similar themes, officials say.
For example, fifth-graders studying Civil War history would also interpret the period-appropriate Walt Whitman poem “O Captain! My Captain!” and draft a composition called “A Civil War Battle.” This cross-discipline approach, anchored by common themes, promotes thorough mastery of the material, Markavitch said.
VLAC is capped at 1,000 students. There were already 200 students signed up as of early July, and VLAC anticipates around 400 by the start of the 2012-13 school year.
The resident school district of the student still gets the funding allocation for the student from the state, provided the district partnered with Oakland Schools. The Madison, Lamphere and Hazel Park school districts are among the partnered districts.
Those who sign up for the program appreciate its more open-ended nature.
“They (caregivers) like the idea of flexibility and of being able to pursue the kids’ personal interests while still being aligned with the curriculum,” said Carol Klenow, program administrator.
“We have family that, due to work, might be back and forth between their home and an assignment in another country,” Klenow said. “VLAC allows them to stay enrolled in their home district and maintain that continuity (of education) while out of the country for extended periods of time. They can basically manage their time and progress at a rate that works for them.”
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