Rebecca Frame's daughters gather around a free computer for the day's lessons. A teacher whom they've only met in person a few times walks the girls through age-level math concepts, and their mother is nearby to coach them on the lesson.
Their K12-funded printer spits out results from the latest spelling test, while a science lab set up on the kitchen table stands ready to be used.
It's all part of the online virtual learning academy, of which the girls are members.
Although they are not part of Lodi Unified School District's future partnership, other students may have the chance to join K12 after trustees unanimously approved moving forward with signing a contract with the same company at their meeting last week.
"It's exciting to hear that Lodi Unified will be partnering with K12, so that there will be more options for kids and families. Some kids simply learn better in a lower-stimulus environment with more one-to-one attention," Frame said this week. "I'm also glad to know that K12 will also be a funding source for Lodi Unified."
K12 is a private company that allows students to learn from home while bringing in additional revenue for the district through a 50-50 sharing agreement. Each party will split the per-student state funding.
Under the contract, the district will spend a maximum of $3,760 for start-up costs, assuming four full-time teachers are assigned to the virtual school program.
All of the curriculum and school supplies will be shipped to students' homes, and it will use only Lodi Unified teachers who will meet regularly with students to discuss progress and turn in coursework. Virtual teachers will adhere to pre-set student ratios.
Looking for an alternative
Frame, who said her third- and sixth-graders are bright but lacked organizational skills, signed up last year with K12 for a variety of reasons.
She shares custody with the girls' father, and said that no matter how good the communication between the two households, there was always homework missing or books left at one place or the other.
In the classroom, each of the girls were able to complete some of the assignments in class, but what they didn't came home as homework.
"The result was the girls being at school until 2:15, coming home and having anywhere from one to four hours of homework," Frame said. "Both their father and I could see the sadness and feelings of self-defeat in both of the girls in one way or another."
Frame was also looking for an alternative education when, while volunteering in each of their classrooms for two to four hours per week for the past six years, she noticed that neither of her daughters would ask for help if they didn't understand something.
"That was a concern I worked with both of them on improving, because they'd otherwise fall behind," she said.
"Even though my sixth-grade daughter is a GATE student, she continually struggled with completing work and losing work. My third-grader would lose her recesses because of not being able to keep up with the class, which made her feel sad almost daily."
For several years, their parents have been looking into homeschooling. K12's California Virtual Academy seemed to fit for the family, and they withdrew their students from Larson Elementary School last November and signed on. (Since they are part of a statewide partnership, Lodi Unified does not receive any state revenue for the girls.)
"From the get-go, both their father and I were impressed with the program. My experience as an adult newcomer homeschooling was scary, but the K12 program had supports in place to make sure that the parents (also known as coaches) feet comfortable in their role," Frame said.
There are virtual classes online daily to support each child in a chosen subject. While all of the classwork is organized online, not all of the work is done online. Science labs, art assignments and other activities are done offline.
"Overall, I am thrilled with the program," Frame said. "It allows for flexibility in regards to scheduling, as well as no missing school because of being sick, because a child can still complete some more relaxed work without exposing others to illness."
Christa McAuliffe Middle School teacher Martha Snider is excited about the program, but hopes the virtual learning option is ultimately afforded to all students. She is at the forefront of the district's digital curriculum, and already communicates after school hours with her students using the Internet.
While it will first be open only to independent-study students, she could see the program expanded to complement a traditional brick-and-mortar education.
"This will provide them for more educational opportunities," Snider said of K12, adding that current student schedules sometimes don't allow room for all of the electives students want to take because of the required core courses.
"By having the virtual environment, the student might be able to take one of their core subjects online with a teacher like me and make room for other classes," Snider said.
She said that while contract issues are still being hammered out, the teachers' union supports the partnership because K12 classes will be taught by district teachers.
"That means more jobs for teachers in the district," Snider said.
Frame's daughters' virtual teacher is available via email or phone, and even texts the girls to keep in contact. She has even visited their home.
The Virginia-based company claims it served more than 69,000 public school students in 2009-10 and is currently looking to create relationships in one district per county in California, according to spokesman Andrew Ehrenfield.
It has worked with specific student populations such as teen mothers and victims of bullying, whose attendance at a traditional school may not be conducive. Currently, many of these students are not being served due to a waiting list at Independence School, according to board president George Neely.
But online learning can be inherently lonely. Frame's girls expressed that the main thing they miss is visiting with peers, aside from scheduled playdates.
K12 recently started a community day class in Lodi where any of the enrolled students can attend for a few hours of face-to-face instructional times. This time also allows for peer interactions.
Additionally, the company holds online community gatherings and annual contests to promote interaction with other students.
Trustees are excited about retaining valuable per-student funding. In recent years, the district has lost thousands due to students like the Frames leaving for private or charter schools, or to be home-schooled. Others have left the state because their families cannot find jobs or have lots their homes.
"Those students that we lost because we did offer a program like this will come back to us, so we will gain revenue," Snider said.
Lodi Unified plans to begin advertising the learning option on its Web site, according to Assistant Superintendent Art Hand.
"The advertising is important because it could bring in desperately needed additional revenues to the district," he said. "The K12 partnership is important because it offers a chance for the district to provide distance learning to students both inside and outside (Lodi Unified)."
Participants could include students both within and outside the district. Attracting students from other areas could not only bring in additional revenue, but also bump Lodi Unified's annual test scores, Superintendent Cathy Nichols-Washer has said.
The program was so successful in nearby Elk Grove Unified School District that additional teachers were hired to handle enrollment. More than 200 students there — 70 percent of whom hail from outside the district — regularly sign into a specific website hosted by K12 and click through subject-based pages.
Open enrollment started March 15, and the district is already anticipating that figures will continue to go up, said Elizabeth Graswich, the district's director of communications.
The free public education system launched last fall is open to students living in Sacramento, Amador, Contra Costa, El Dorado, Placer, San Joaquin, Solano, Sutter and Yolo counties.
Unlike Lodi's proposed plan, there is no revenue-sharing portion between K12 and the Elk Grove district. It pays for the program, according to Graswich.
The district does, however, hire its own teachers.
"It is very much an Elk Grove unified school," Graswich said, before turning her attention to the program's success.
"It's been an exciting program, and it's exciting to see the advancement of education and how it's delivered."
Contact reporter Jennifer Bonnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.