Nearly 600 students started school from the comfort of their homes Monday as Louisiana’s first online charter school for kindergarten through 12th grade opened.
The school, Louisiana Connections Academy, is based on the second floor of a Goodwood Boulevard office.
About 100 of its students live in the Baton Rouge area.
What makes it different is that, for these students, the school day will take place at home primarily using computers, email, Web conferencing, software and telephones.
They are supposed to be under the eye of a mom, dad, grandparent or guardian who serves as the student’s “learning coach” and who has to sign a “contract” with school officials that spells out their commitment.
On the other end are certified teachers huddled over computers in cubicles at the Goodwood office.
They teach the same math, science, English and other classes as are taught in traditional public schools, even if students can move at their own pace easier.
“I would say the general profile would be a family whose children have not thrived in the brick and mortar setting for a variety of reasons,” said Caroline Wood, who is principal of the school.
That includes students who have toyed with dropping out, those who are unchallenged, students with athletic or other schedules that require flexibility or youngsters with medical or social issues that make traditional public schools less appealing.
“We have a lot of students who come from the home school environment,” Wood said.
And for those who think a virtual school is a way to dodge homework?
“That little computer is going to pick up instantly when lessons are not being completed,” Wood said.
Charters are public schools, have independent boards and are supposed to offer innovative education methods.
About 33,000 students attend charter schools in Louisiana, which is about five percent of public school enrollment.
Louisiana Connections Academy was approved in December by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, called BESE, in December, with a cap of 500 students, and the ability to rise by 100 if needed.
However, school officials are set to appear before a BESE committee on Wednesday asking for a new enrollment cap of 1,000 students because of heavy demand.
Wade Henderson, president of the school’s seven-member board, said another 400 or so students have been approval for admission if BESE gives the go ahead this week.
The current headcount is 574 students, Henderson said.
The school has its critics.
Rapides Parish Superintendent Gary Jones, former president of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, said he is a big believer in online learning.
But Jones said BESE’s decision to give online students 90 percent of what the state provides students in traditional public schools — an estimated $4,539 per student — is too much because their costs are considerably lower.
Chas Roemer, a member of BESE, said as long as the state is spending less to educate public school students, “explain to me what the problem is.
“The fact of the matter is the world is changing,” Roemer said.
“We have got to change with it with what we expose our kids to and how we teach our kids,” he said.
Aside from computers online students also rely on textbooks and workbooks, and take standardized state tests like their counterparts in traditional public schools.
Students are provided computers and other supplies.
Families without an Internet connection get a stipend.
Dori Harris, who teaches sixth-grade language arts, science and social studies at the academy, said a mother told her on Monday that her child, who normally has to be dragged out of bed for school, was up at 4 a.m. for online classes.
“The kids know everything about technology,” Harris said.