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‘No More Teacher’s Dirty Looks’ in the Online Classroom

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WASHINGTON POST

David Botluk, 13, and his classmates are solving math puzzles with their teacher. David is at his mother’s office in Washington, D.C. His teacher is in Idaho. The other students are scattered throughout the country, all tethered to their computers, joined together as a class in cyber-world.

Through the wonders of the Internet, and $199 a month, David is being taught at home, taking a full seventh-grade curriculum through Christa McAuliffe Academy, based in Washington state.

His “e-teacher” guides him through his algebra, chemistry, geography and English classes while his parents work full-time. Sometimes he does his course work at home by himself; other times he goes with his mother to her job at Catholic University’s law library.

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The Botluks pulled David out of private school because they wanted him to have a more individualized curriculum. That would not have been possible for the Annapolis, Md., family had they not stumbled upon the Web site for Christa McAuliffe Academy two years ago.

“We wanted something that provided an actual teacher working with him and an actual curriculum,” James Botluk said. “This opened up a new avenue.”

The Internet is revolutionizing the growing home-schooling movement. More and more parents are pulling their children out of schools, particularly public schools, but no longer serving as their sole teachers.

Rather, more are paying for online courses to make the instructional work easier and to free them so they can work full-time jobs. Others see the courses as a way to teach their children those subjects they don’t feel qualified to teach.

“We’re seeing more families who are convinced that home schooling is right but they’re seeing gaps that they need to fill,” said Scott Somerville, staff lawyer for the Home School Legal Defense Assn. “The online courses are wonderful in filling the need for certain specific disciplines.”

“I didn’t feel comfortable with trying to put it together myself,” said Ann Shiflet, of Montgomery County, Md., whose 14-year-old daughter, Sarah, has been taught at home for three years, one year by the California-based Laurel Springs School. “It’s a big undertaking, and I wanted someone else to grade her, too.”

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Concerns about the safety and quality of traditional schools have fueled a nationwide increase in home schooling. In less than a decade, the number of children educated at home in the United States has more than tripled, to about 1.7 million.

The online courses have particular appeal to parents of high-school-age students. Teaching reading and addition to the younger children is not so challenging, but once students grow older and start taking more complex courses, some parents feel out of their league.

“A lot of parents just don’t feel adequate. They worry they’ll miss vital skills, especially when it comes to high school courses,” said Glen Blomgren, founder and executive director of Christa McAuliffe Academy.

A support network for home-schooling families has sprouted, with parents having easy access to any number of Web sites offering online courses--some with virtual classrooms that are essentially chat rooms for students and teachers.

Cyber-schools like Christa McAuliffe Academy are finding a ready and willing pool of customers in home-schooling families. “Home schoolers are a free market in education where public schools cannot be,” Somerville said.

Experts caution that reliance on such schools for a full curriculum detracts from what should be the purpose of home schooling--bringing together the parent and child.

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“It is a major distraction from the core purpose of home schooling, which is parent-child interaction,” said Michael P. Farris, chairman of the Home School Legal Defense Assn. and president of a new college for home schoolers. “I think [the online courses] are great for supplemental activities. But I’m not sure it’s the best thing to sit in front of a computer for four hours a day.”

Debora Harris, an early-childhood teacher specialist in Calvert County, Md., has similar concerns, given the lack of social interaction some home-schooled students experience.

“I think it’s a great tool but a tool that needs to be used carefully,” she said. “I think with the whole virtual movement, you have to make sure that the children are socially and emotionally stable.”

Others say the courses teach students to rely too heavily on Web sites rather than books for information. True enough, many courses will guide students to Web sites rather than books. Furthermore, some schools are unaccredited and employ uncertified teachers.

The ultimate challenge of cyberschools, though, may be the students. Many parents caution that it can be too tempting for students to slack off when they don’t have a school bell ringing in the morning.

Sasha Wexler, 18, an aspiring actress who often performs in local plays, admits she has fallen behind in her online course work with the Laurel Spring School. In a regular high school, the District teenager would have graduated last month. But she is still finishing up a couple of courses this summer.

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“Home schoolers have to realize that the structure comes from within,” said her mother, Marsha. “You don’t face your teacher in the morning when she asks for your homework and say ‘Oops, I forgot.’ If you’re not checking as a parent . . . they can fall off track.”

Still, parents are flocking to the programs.

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