Distance Learning

Omaha Opening State's First Public Virtual School — for Homeschoolers

The largest district in the state of Nebraska will be testing out the viability of a virtual school starting this fall. Omaha Public Schools is launching the Omaha Virtual School, an online program specifically designed to serve K-8 home-schooled students.

The district hopes to expand the program to draw other students and to add additional grade levels in the future. The project is a partnership with Metropolitan Community College in Omaha and Do Space, an Omaha-based community technology library, digital workshop and "innovation playground."

Superintendent Mark Evans emphasized the blended nature of the school, which will deliver, he stated in an online letter to the community, "the benefits of the virtual and traditional classrooms. Blended learning enhances online learning with opportunities for labs, guest speakers, field trips, and other face-to-face cooperative learning."

As the district is explaining in a series of information sessions given around the metropolitan area, students will have both online and in-person activities, including field trips and Skype interactions. They'll be issued computers for the school year on which to do course work. If their families lack home internet access, they'll be referred to the community "Connect2Compete" program for low-cost service delivered by Cox Communications or told to head to DoSpace or a local library for free access to Wi-Fi.

To participate in the free program, students must sign up for "dual enrollment" in the district and enroll in at least two classes in order for Omaha Public Schools to receive reimbursement from the state for that student.

Parents will act as "learning coaches," monitoring progress at home and keeping students on task. District "student learning advocates" will serve as the district's representatives in interacting with families.

The virtual school is being led by Wendy Loewenstein, a long-time educator who initially joined the district this year as an instructional technology trainer, facilitating a Microsoft Innovative Educator program for the school system. All teachers will be Nebraska state-certified and meet all the same requirements as those who teach in the school system's other schools.

The district said it was still in the process of selecting a curriculum provider and a learning management system.

Omaha Public Schools won't be backing down on two areas of contention for many families that do home-schooling — vaccinations or state testing. Both will be required for students enrolled in the program.

The school system had almost 52,000 students in the 2015-2016 school year, according to the Nebraska Department of Education. The statewide total was about 354,000. According to reporting in the Omaha World-Herald, the estimated number of homeschooled students in Nebraska is about 8,290, two-thirds of which are home-schooling for "sincerely held religious beliefs." The same article quoted Director Lowenstein as saying that the program could take up to 300 students in the first year; it had already received about 150 applications.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at dian@dischaffhauser.com or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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