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Is Online Summer School Right for Your Child?

As the captain of the U.S. diving team and Team USA's best hope for a medal in men's diving at the Rio Olympic Games in August, 11th-grader Jordan Windle is going to have an extremely busy summer. But amid the practicing, the media appearances, the Olympic trials and then the games, Windle is also planning to take summer school.

Yes, you read that right. No, the 16-year-old isn't a glutton for punishment; he says his reason for taking classes over the summer break is to get ahead in hopes of graduating early.

And how will he accomplish a summer class load amid such a busy and demanding schedule? Windle is one of a growing number of U.S. students who take summer school classes at one of the many online accredited institutions.

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"My favorite part about taking classes at International Connections Academy is the flexibility it gives me when I am traveling around the world with Team USA," says Jordan, who's been a student at iNaCA full time since 2013.

According to Jordan's father, Jerry Windle, his son's online education has been a life-saving program for their family.

"The time commitment and scheduling flexibility needed to become a world-class athlete is not possible in a brick and mortar school setting," Jerry says, "iNaCA [offers] flexibility, a strong curriculum, and virtual face-to-face dialogue and instruction."

In fact, despite his frequent travel to diving competitions all over the world—including Russia, Dubai, and Beijing—because of his online education, Jordan hasn't once fallen behind. In fact, his goal is to graduate in December, a full semester early.

How It Works

Online education programs for K-12 students have been around for more than a decade, and their programs have gained popularity among homeschoolers, GED seekers, and students like Jordan, whose personal circumstances make attending a traditional school impossible.

One of the pioneers of the "digital education revolution," as they call it, is K12, a full-service online academy that has offered summer courses to tens of thousands of students since its conception 15 years ago.

According to Donna Savarese, K12's director of communications, "Students can choose from hundreds of courses, including math, science, social studies, English, computer science, health, physical education, and world languages. AP courses include English literature, calculus, and world history, among others."

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Jordan's online school—iNaCA—has existed since 2009, and according to its director, Hannah Rinehart, "[Our] K-12 summer school program has provided 25,000 courses to hundreds of students around the world ... [and] students can enroll with iNaCA and earn U.S. credit anywhere in the world."

Both K12 and iNaCA boast that their online summer educations are personal, with tutors always available to assist struggling students.

The Pros and Cons

However, even though summer enrollments at online academies, such as iNaCA, K12, Laurel Springs School, and Penn Foster High School, are on the rise and all of them offer enthusiastic testimonials from a wide range of students, many traditional educators still have concerns about students taking online summer school.

According to Cristina Duncan Evans, a high school social studies teacher in the Baltimore City school district and a weekly contributor at Education Week, parents should evaluate online summer programs carefully, even the high quality ones.

"The worst of these programs boil coursework down to reading comprehension questions that require the recitation of facts," says Evans. "[And] I've seen students use the 'find' function of a web browser to pass online course tests without reading the passages associated with the questions."

While Evans believes that online remediation can be a great way for some students to move at their own pace, she adds, "It's often too easy for students to get bored or outsmart the software."

She also has concerns about the lack of human interaction that students experience at some online schools: "In my experience, deeper learning is too unpredictable to be managed by computers alone, but the Internet can be an incredibly useful tool for deeper learning when online resources are curated by an experienced educator."

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Dr. Blair Andress, a middle school principal in Montgomery, Ala., who pursued school administration after 19 years of teaching high school and middle school students, is a proponent of online classes.

"[They're] a great alternative to more traditional settings," says Andress. "Many public schools use online classes to supplement their traditional programs."

At the middle school where he's the administrator, Andress notes that all the school's summer programming is digitally delivered in what he calls a "blended environment."

"We have one classroom teacher facilitating summer school in our computer lab," he explains, "and the students work at their own pace through the courses they need to makeup in order to move to the next grade."

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However, despite online schools, like iNaCA and K12, proudly advertising "full accreditation," Andress is leery about students taking courses online from outside providers.

"Our content area specialists studied the curriculum from various providers before deciding which one we would adopt," he says, adding that they landed on a curriculum that closely resembles what is taught at his school. "Parents are not likely to be as familiar with what is being taught, and classes with the same name might not be the same classes."

At the very least, Andress suggests that parents do a thorough amount of research before choosing an online school for their child: "Before paying for a child to enroll in an [online] class, I would certainly want to verify that my child's school would accept the class for credit, whether the classes are being taken for remediation or for advanced credit."

Is it right for your kid?

As the assistant director for Online Faculty Development at Penn State University, Andrew Tatusko interacts daily with students who engage in his university's online courses. Although he's a firm believer in online education, Tatusko says that for some students, virtual learning can be a difficult process.

"Online learning prefers students who are better at managing their own learning and have a motivation to do so," explains Tatusko. "This is why the best courses are designed to help reinforce those behaviors. But there's no guarantee that you will get a course that is designed this way."

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Tatusko says that many Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) put the pressure on the students to be motivated enough to finish the course: "And unfortunately most students are not, and so, the completion rate is very low."

Tatusko suggests that parents must realize that they will have to play a huge role if they decide to enroll their child into an online education program.

"Kids will need help with their scheduling," he says. "Parents will need to help their child organize and plan [healthy] interruptions and breaks. Encouraging some sort of physical activity between study segments helps, too."

As for Windle, he can't say enough good things about his online education experience: "I think the education I receive [is] probably better than [what] I would have gotten in a traditional classroom. I haven't had the distractions that I probably would have had in a regular classroom. And I think not being exposed to a lot of negative behaviors has probably helped make me a better person."

His father agrees.

"The teachers are extremely qualified and helpful. Honestly, they know Jordan as well as any teacher in a traditional classroom, and they look out for his welfare," Jerry says.