Virtual education firm making real-world progress

Barbara Dreyer, CEO of Connections Academy

May 23, 2010|By Gus G. Sentementes, The Baltimore Sun

Barbara Dreyer runs a virtual online education company that the longtime entrepreneur and educator hopes is making a real-world impact.

As online universities soar in popularity, Dreyer's company, Connections Academy, is one of the leaders in the field of K-12 online education and partners with public and charter schools; it also offers its own online private school. It employs about 1,000 people nationwide, with nearly 300 in the Baltimore area at its headquarters in Baltimore and at a warehouse in Elkridge.

Dreyer, 55, co-founded Connections Academy in 2001 and has guided it to steady growth. It briefly operated a pilot program in Baltimore County and now operates in 17 states, with more than 20,000 students taking online courses through its programs.

Connections Academy has grown quickly as more states explore online learning programs. The private company's annual revenue now stands at $120 million and has risen an average of 35 percent a year, according to Dreyer. The Baltimore Sun caught up with Dreyer to talk about how Connections Academy operates, what it offers parents and students, and its future in Maryland.

Question: How does your industry fight against a perception that virtual education isn't as "real" as a traditional brick-and-mortar education?

Answer: Nowadays, there's a lot more open consideration of it, but there are still people uncomfortable with that model. You remember, there were those same debates on whether you could take an online course in college. Today, there are plenty of people at very prestigious universities who are taking classes online. It can be a very powerful facilitator.

Q: So what's a typical day for a Connections Academy student who is in, say, the fifth grade?

A: A fifth-grade student is probably going to have, and should have, a parent or some other adult available to them daily. You would expect to see Mom and Dad or other relatives available, or people who do this as a cooperative.

We're going to tell you the classes and the content you have to cover, but we're going to allow you to have some flexibility. If you need to do five math periods in one week, some students may want to do them all in one day. You can't do that in traditional school. … What happens if you're a particularly bright kid? You can go ahead. In a traditional school, the child can get bored sitting there with his book closed.

You're going to work a specific amount of time, depending on the school district you're in, say 5.5 hours. We're going to fill your day with that amount of classes. But there's variability in when you start. We have families who start school at 6:30 in the morning. We do not have the kind of homework that a traditional school has. What we found for the most part is that you can get what you need done during the school day. We build in the homework through the course of the day. There's a lot of stuff in school that's built in that takes extra time, such as assemblies.

We can take that day and make it really focused on instruction. Oftentimes, your assignment will send you offline. We send you physical science supplies. You're outside, writing a journal. It's important to let people know that [their child] will be online part of the time but also offline a good part of the time.

Q: What kind of students and families are drawn to using Connections Academy? What is their socio-economic background?

A: It is a very broad range of families. However, about 50 percent of them are lower-income families. It's a significant portion where this is clearly not a program just for wealthy families. We have a broad range of kids. Every one of the families has a story about why they're here.

Sometimes they don't feel safe in school. For a lot of kids who are bright, it's not necessarily cool to be bright in school. You don't want to raise your hand because you'll be made fun of. For some students and parents, the only choice they have is to get them away from their peers.

Q: How does Connections Academy make money?

A: The majority of our business comes from operating with public schools that use this model of online instruction. Those schools receive funding from the state, and they would pay us. It generally ranges between $5,000 and $7,000 per student. The reason we can make money is really very simple: It's scale We're serving 20,000 students. That allows us to take our overhead and spread it out, and as we get bigger we'll have the opportunity to become more profitable.

Most people have this reaction that "Why should you have a for-profit company involved in public education?" But every company connected to public schools — from the cafeteria to textbooks — are all making a profit. It should be a matter of what they're providing.

Q: You're based in Baltimore and have Connections Academies in 17 states, but none in Maryland. Why is that?

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