Virtual Schools

Omaha Public Schools to Open Nebraska's First Virtual School This Month

Omaha Public Schools are gearing up to open Nebraska’s first virtual school for K–8 students this month.

During its first year, the Omaha Virtual School will be open only to home-schooled students, providing a mix of face-to-face instruction and online lessons, the Omaha World-Herald reported this week.

Students participating in the free program will be given a laptop so they can receive instruction at home at their own pace. They’ll also be required to report in person once a week for face-to-face activities, such as field trips or science labs, as part of the program’s blended learning model.

“I believe strongly that a school isn’t just about the building, it’s about the students,” Wendy Loewenstein, the virtual school’s director, told the World-Herald. “Not every student can find success in a traditional school environment, and our school will be providing another option for families to explore.”

The Omaha Board of Education unanimously approved the program last month, and the district has received more than 180 applications from students who wish to enroll, the World-Herald said. Enrollment will be capped at 300 for the first year.

Students will be required to sign up for a minimum of two courses, which cover core subject areas such as math and language arts, as well as several technology-oriented electives. The district plans to hire four teachers and a student learning advocate, similar to a school counselor.

OPS will pay K12 Classroom LLC, a Virginia-based, for-profit online learning company, to provide the web-based software and curriculum for online classes. The company was one of two to submit bids to deliver online content.

K12 has been the subject of some controversy lately. Last month, K12 agreed to pay the $8.5 million as part of a settlement with the California Attorney General’s Office. K12 and the 14 California Virtual Academies it manages are also currently undergoing an audit by the state’s controller’s office and the California Department of Education.

And just this week, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute released a study that said students in Ohio’s virtual charter schools performed worse on state tests than those in traditional, brick-and-mortar district schools. Ohio has one of the highest virtual charter school populations in the country, with 35,000 students enrolled full-time.

OPS Superintendent Mark Evans said Omaha’s program will avoid the pitfalls that have challenged virtual schools in other states.

“It’s not uncommon to see articles across the nation about online schools that didn’t do well,” he said at a July 18 school board meeting. “In other states I’ve seen it happen because they didn’t do it the right way. What you just heard tonight in this brief description is someone doing it the right way.”

Evans said Omaha Virtual School and its staff will remain firmly under the control of the district and the Nebraska Department of Education. Teachers will be state-certified and employees of OPS, and the curriculum will align with Nebraska standards, he said.

Ultimately, the goal will be to open online classes to all OPS students if district officials can persuade Nebraska’s legislature to provide state funding for virtual school students, the World-Herald reported. A similar bill in the last legislative session stalled out.

While Omaha Virtual School will be the first K-8 virtual school in the state, online courses for high school students are already available, for a fee, through the University of Nebraska High School, the World-Herald said.

About the Author

Richard Chang is associate editor of THE Journal. He can be reached at rchang@1105media.com.

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