Do online high schools make the grade?

From CNET Magazine: Virtual classrooms are growing in popularity, but beware. There can be big differences in quality and cost.

Leslie Katz Former Culture Editor
Leslie Katz led a team that explored the intersection of tech and culture, plus all manner of awe-inspiring science, from space to AI and archaeology. When she's not smithing words, she's probably playing online word games, tending to her garden or referring to herself in the third person.
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Leslie Katz
5 min read
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Natalie LeBaron dissected earthworms, grasshoppers and frogs for her 10th-grade biology class.

Sure, high school students have been excising amphibian hearts for decades -- but not like LeBaron. She wields her scalpel on top of the dryer in her family's laundry room in Stockton, California.

LeBaron, 15, had just completed her sophomore year with Stanford Online High School (mascot: the Pixel), where she takes classes while in a fluffy chair in the corner of her bedroom. When she does science experiments, like dissecting frogs or measuring cellular respiration, her teacher sometimes asks to see photos, which she snaps and sends with an iPad.

But it's not all homework at Stanford Online High School (OHS). Student life can be surprisingly well-rounded.

LeBaron, for example, runs a weekly club focused on the multiplayer video game Artemis: Spaceship Bridge Simulator. She's also performed in a one-act play via Adobe Connect, sharing the virtual stage with a fellow actor in New Jersey as audience members applauded with emojis.

"Sometimes it gets a little bit lonely, being the only person in Stockton that goes to my school, but it works out," says LeBaron, who has met classmates at get-togethers on Stanford's Palo Alto, California, campus 85 miles from home. "I love the challenge. I love the environment."


Natalie LeBaron turns her kitchen counter into a lab table for a science experiment she's conducting for Stanford Online High School.

James Martin/CNET

There are all kinds of online high schools -- from government-funded public and charter schools, which are free to resident minors, to private schools including those like OHS, which are affiliated with universities.

This last category varies in price: Indiana University High School charges $250 for each course, George Washington University Online High School costs $12,000 a year, while yearly tuition at OHS hits nearly $20,000 for four or more courses. (OHS says about 15 percent of its students receive financial aid.)

Nearly 460 full-time charter, privately run or district-operated virtual schools enrolled more than 261,000 students during the 2014-15 academic year, according to the National Education Policy Center.

Something for everyone

So what's the appeal? For some, like LeBaron, these virtual schools feel like natural extensions to their home schooling. Others might have been bullied, struggle with chronic illnesses or live in remote areas.

Others are high achievers who need higher academic standards or the flexibility to compete in sports, start companies or perform on stage.

German student Birte Doludda, 17, checks off several of those reasons for attending OHS. She and her family moved to Tokyo eight years ago when her father got a job there with chemical maker Nippon Aerosil.

"In physical schools, I often had disappointing teachers who seemed uninterested in their own subjects," says Doludda, who just completed her junior year. "[At OHS] I get to work on subjects that I like and experience things like philosophy, which I am told not many high school students get to do."

Alex Shaffer, now 25, attended Indiana University High School because it made it easier for him to juggle homework while keeping his 30 internet marketing clients happy.

"I needed a high school that was flexible with my schedule so I could go to meetings and work on my projects," Shaffer says on the school's website. "I was able to work at my own pace, and being able to work anywhere was a good thing because I traveled."

Not so fast

To be sure, not every virtual high school caters to high achievers -- or even meets the needs of the average student, according to the National Education Policy Center. In April, the organization published a report saying students attending charter, for-profit and district-operated virtual schools consistently underperform those at traditional schools. (It didn't cover college-associated schools, like OHS.)

The center also notes that for-profit virtual schools account for nearly three-quarters of all enrollments. They also have the highest student/teacher ratio, with 44 students per online classroom. The report's authors go so far as to describe the virtual schools it looked at as "dismal -- if not disastrous."

"The whole model is flawed," says lead author Gary Miron, a professor of education at Western Michigan University. "[It] was not developed by academics or researchers or practitioners."

Even schools with impeccable academic credentials have their skeptics. That's because they can't provide the social elements -- from varsity tryouts to locker room awkwardness -- that are an important part of growing up. For some, that's OK.

Enlarge Image

Classmates in Vikram Venkatram's AP biology class could see and comment on a report he gave on plant defenses.

Screenshot by ​Leslie Katz/CNET

"I do think that I am missing out on some typical high school experiences, like walking to class with my friends," Doludda says, "but I believe that I experience all the ones that really matter."

She says she's made close friends at OHS, but has met them only over Skype.

Learning without borders

On a Tuesday evening, hardly a standard time for a high school class, Kim Failor led an AP biology class from a video chat window on one side of a computer screen, while students on camera answered questions or delivered presentations.

Vikram Venkatram, for example, gave a report on plant defenses and posted visuals on a virtual whiteboard he shared with classmates as far away as China and Japan. They praised him with smiley faces and virtual high-fives after he'd finished.

"I really like how a lot of the assignments and teaching are focused on quality over quantity," says Venkatram, 16, who started his senior year this fall.

"It's definitely a lot of work and it's not easy. But it's nice because every homework assignment will ask in-depth questions on something new versus 16 or even 50 questions on the same kind of math [but] with different numbers."


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Michael Muller

Inner strength

It takes a certain kind of student to do well at schools like OHS, the No. 3 ranked private school in the country, after Phillips Academy (where day students pay $40,500 in annual tuition) and Phillips Exeter (nearly $37,900 a year), according to Niche.com.

For sure, they're high achievers, but they also tend to be more self-reliant than their peers attending brick-and-mortar schools.

"I really like that the students are doing lab work at home, because then they're really required to get the full experience of being a scientist," says Failor, head of the science division at OHS.

"They have to set up the apparatus. They need to troubleshoot. In graduate school I noticed that not everyone had the skills to troubleshoot an experiment. They always had an expert on hand."

Count LeBaron in the take-charge OHS crowd. At just 15, she's already looking ahead to a career in physics or medicine and, if her high school record is any indication, she could end up doing both.

This story appears in the fall 2016 edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, click here.