Parents endorse online school

March 04, 2009|By Arin Gencer | Arin Gencer,arin.gencer@baltsun.com

A group of Baltimore County parents whose children participated in an online learning program that the school system did not fund this year has formed an organization to push for access to alternative education throughout the state.

The founders of Emerging Minds of Maryland, which is incorporating this week, were among several parents who for months repeatedly urged the school board to find money to continue a one-year pilot program. The online Connections Academy gave their children a chance to learn in ways the conventional classroom did not - and at their own pace, the parents said.

"This is an option that we found opened up a lot of doors for people," said Kia Drake-Cummings, a Randallstown-area parent and president of Emerging Minds. "Having this option is a great opportunity to be able to get the same curriculum that would be ... in the brick-and-mortar school."

Emerging Minds would like to work with local school boards to start a dialogue on the subject, Drake-Cummings said, and it ultimately hopes to see a bill supporting access to virtual instruction pass in the General Assembly. The organization's board was to meet yesterday evening, she said, and might have a public session at the end of this month.

Last school year, the Baltimore-based Connections Academy supplied administrators, teachers and materials for free. In the spring, the district informed parents of the 100 or so Connections students that fiscal constraints at every level of government would prevent the Baltimore County Virtual Instruction Program from continuing.

"We decided to come together and continue because we didn't want other families to be disappointed," said Drake-Cummings, who has six of her seven children involved in Connections Academy. The format, which provided teacher support and a link to public schools, suited her family, which includes children with special needs and gifted-and-talented students, she said.

For now, the organization has been relying on word of mouth as its members seek to make friends and other Maryland parents aware of what online instruction is about - and connect with counterparts in other states, said Drake-Cummings and Bonnie Wesselhoff, a founder whose seventh-grade son participates in Connections.

"There is an interest, but we need a bigger platform so that more people can hear about it," Wesselhoff said, referring to virtual learning. "We want to make a difference, and we can make a difference."

Charles A. Herndon, a school system spokesman, said it was "not appropriate for Baltimore County schools to comment on anything related to a for-profit venture," referring to online learning companies.

While the members of Emerging Minds recognize the state Department of Education's support of online learning at the high school level, with classes through the Maryland Virtual School, they seek something broader.

A variety of families, beyond the original ones participating in the pilot, have expressed interest, Drake-Cummings and Wesselhoff said. Their cause has drawn people who have children with special needs or anxieties associated with going to school, and individuals interested in home-schooling, they said.

Being part of an organization, instead of individual parents advocating for virtual learning, gives them more credibility, Wesselhoff said: "It gives us the ability to have a platform to explain what it actually is - because there are a lot of misconceptions."

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