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Katlyn Lawless, a high school senior enrolled in the virtual high school academy, is completing a number of online classes this fall. Photographed Friday, December 7, 2012 in Waterloo. (BRANDON POLLOCK / Courier Staff Photographer)

First of two parts.

WATERLOO, Iowa --- Katlyn Lawless has a dedicated space in her bedroom for school work.

The 17-year-old sits at a desk in a corner, working through online lessons on a computer. The self-paced curriculum allows Lawless to decide when and how long to study --- as well as the environment in which she works. "Sometimes I'll have the TV on, or I'll play music on my iPad, or I'll lay on my bed," she said.

At the Dams household, fifth-grader Dannica and second-grader Syler have similar areas set up for their school work. Their mom, Christy, oversees learning and occasionally grants permission for a "pajama day" --- where the pair can complete online lessons without getting dressed for class.

Although it looks a lot like home schooling, these students are enrolled in Waterloo Community Schools through new virtual programs launched this fall.

Lawless is part of Waterloo Virtual High School Academy, which now enrolls about 25 students within the district.

"They have a lot more flexible schedule as far as when they complete their school work," said Kory Kelchen, coordinator for the district's online learning programs. The online elementary offerings this year are officially a pilot program, which includes the Dams children and one other Waterloo student.

The high school academy also had a low-key start as officials put staff into place. A number of East and West high school students who were pregnant, caring for a young child, facing severe health issues or who had jobs were identified as potential enrollees. Some are participating in the academy for a limited time while their situation makes attending school challenging.

"It's really just another option," said Kelchen. "We have a smorgasbord of options."

Those options include smaller schools and class sizes as well as online learning in a school setting. Some target students who are at risk of dropping out while others focus on providing another chance for those who dropped out.

The virtual academy isn't the only new option this year. The Crossroads Center School, which opened last week, will connect students with job shadowing experiences while using the same online curriculum as the virtual academy. The virtual academy differs in that students don't need to be in a district classroom to participate.

A growing number of online education options are becoming available for public school students across the country. A 2012 report on online learning by the Colorado-based private consulting firm Evergreen Education Group estimated 1.8 million distance education course enrollments nationwide in 2009-10, largely using the Internet.

The report, "Keeping Pace with K-12 Online & Blended Learning," found there are currently 31 states plus Washington, D.C., where fully online schools operate in multiple districts. In 2011-12, these schools served an estimated 275,000 students.

This state's virtual education programs, Iowa Learning Online and Iowa Advanced Placement Academy, had 1,431 course enrollments last year, which the report said was a 36 percent increase. In addition, two Iowa school districts established online academies this fall that open enroll students from across the state.

The Iowa Virtual Academy, based at Clayton Ridge Community Schools near Guttenberg, has about 65 students in kindergarten through sixth grade. It will expand to K-12 next fall. Connections Academy, based at CAM Schools in the southwestern Iowa town of Anita, has a little under 250 K-12 students.

Waterloo's effort to provide fully online education to students within the district may be unique in the state. Officials with the Iowa Department of Education and the Iowa Association of School Boards were not aware of other districts with a similar program.

Home school interest

The programs are reaching students who wouldn't typically enroll in a district school.

"We do have a couple that would have been home-school students, but they heard about the virtual school," said Kelchen. That's the case with both Lawless and the Dams children.

Lawless had been at Valley Lutheran High School in Cedar Falls since she and her parents moved to Waterloo two years ago. However, she struggled with classroom distractions and transportation issues. The family decided to try something different for her senior year.

She has already finished both semesters of her American history class this school year. Lawless is currently taking English, Algebra 2 and Spanish 2.

"When I first started, I was kind of concerned I wouldn't be in a classroom so I wouldn't get as much help from a teacher." But she feels more assistance has been available from teachers through the virtual academy because they aren't constrained by the limits of class periods.

In addition, Lawless is taking two art classes at East High School this semester, photography and sculpture. Although there are online art courses, these two were not available.

The Dams family moved to Waterloo from Cedar Falls in October 2011. Christy Dams and her husband had thought about home schooling in the past and decided to take the plunge.

"This was the perfect opportunity to give it a try," she said. "Last year, we did home school our kids and used a different curriculum."

The district's program is "working out wonderfully," said Christy. "The kids like it, I like it and for our family dynamic it works well."

Mary Herring, associate dean of the University of Northern Iowa's College of Education, has studied instructional technology and distance learning. She believes the Waterloo programs have "opened up opportunities" for parents interested in home schooling their children. "It provides access to resources and expertise that you otherwise wouldn't have inside a home," she said.

Because the students are enrolled in the Waterloo Schools, the district receives state funding to help pay for software, curriculum and teachers. There is no cost to families.

Access to teachers

Provided through K12, a Virginia-based company, the elementary curriculum is completely done at home and closely overseen by parents, who have to type in a code for their children to take the tests. Kelchen said students do the majority of their studies in workbooks provided by the company, with 40 percent done online. A district teacher is in regular contact with the family and can serve as a resource if the parent needs assistance with a lesson.

The high school program is based on the same Plato Learning software and curriculum the district uses for its performance based diploma academies and Grad Connect. Students work through online tutorials created by the Minnesota company. They also complete an "off line" component in each class that can account for as much as 30 percent of the work, which improves the curriculum's alignment to district standards.

A district teacher serving as a "learning coach" in each of the content areas --- math, science, English and social studies --- checks in with students every week. Those who have a question or are struggling with a concept can also contact the teacher.

Kelchen said teachers have minimum requirements for phone, email and face-to-face contact with students. The face time is accomplished either through online technology or student visits to Expo Alternative Learning Center, where the teachers are located. In a number of cases, such as science labs, students are required to spend some time in the school. Unit and semester tests must either be taken in person at Expo, or a verbal assessment is done over the phone with the teacher.

For electives, the district uses curriculum provided by E2020, an Arizona company. Those classes are also overseen by Expo teachers. Students select career paths, just like those in the classrooms, so electives can be geared toward their potential job interests.

Computer tutorials in the Plato system explain each lesson, offer students practice opportunities and then test them. There is an emphasis on taking notes, which can be used during tests. Lessons are organized into multiple modules that make up a unit. Students must demonstrate 80 percent mastery of the online content before moving on to the next module.

Herring praised the involvement of local teachers in Waterloo's program.

"I think that's a key that support is provided," she said. "When there is confusion or questions, there's someone to go to."

Another plus, she said, is that students "can't be a bystander in an online class." With the Plato system, Herring noted, teachers can monitor how long and when students log on, helping them to identify students who would otherwise fall through the cracks.

Herring said online classes can foster "extremely rich discussion," allowing more time for reflection and drawing in some students who tend not to participate in a regular classroom. With students working independently and at their own pace, though, those discussions may not be happening in the Waterloo programs.

"I think that inability to put ideas out there and discuss them would be a drawback," said Herring. "Now, I assume that the learning coach has that ability, but it's not that opportunity to interact with your peers."

Kelchen said the district is in the process of trying to put in place some collaboration and social interaction for students. That would make use of online technologies such as Google Plus rather than necessarily bringing students into the same room.

The students and their families insist they haven't become isolated since beginning their online education.

"We're very careful, my husband and I, that they're still in the community so they don't lose social skills," said Christy Dams.

Her children take field trips to the Gallagher-Bluedorn Performing Arts Center and participate in gymnastics, swimming, music lessons, a variety of church activities and a weekly home school co-op. Dannica, who has an interest in animals, also spends time each week at a local veterinarian clinic and attends safari school and zookeeper classes every month at Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines.

Lawless doesn't spend all her time in front of a computer, either. She has jobs at a restaurant and a retail store. She has attended some East sporting events and gets together with friends. But she was looking for less opportunity to socialize during class time when signing up for the virtual academy: "I'm very sociable and I get easily distracted," she said.

"I like learning at my house," Lawless added. "I feel like I've learned a lot so far."

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