Her daughter gets a half-hour a day of "circle time" on the computer, when she interacts with other children and an instructor. The rest of the instruction is guided by Connections' curriculum, with Sparks and her husband, Patrick, as facilitators. The couple's two older daughters completed high school through National Connections Academy.
"My husband and I work opposite shifts," Amy Sparks said. "He works in the evening, so this allows him to spend quality time with his kids. Not everyone can do this. It takes a lot of dedication from the parents, but it should be accessible to everyone."
Nationwide, about 250,000 students are enrolled in full-time online public school programs, according to Susan Patrick, president of the International Association of K-12 Online Learning, a trade group representing education companies.
The numbers are still small compared with the nation's total K-12 student population of 50 million, Patrick said.
Online education for K-12 students is growing because children and parents realize that public schools aren't for everybody, Patrick said, adding, "People are looking for new options to personalize instruction."
Last month, dozens of educators and software developers gathered in Baltimore for an "education hack day" -- a weekend-long event during which they built education applications for the Web and mobile devices.
Mike Brenner, a Baltimore technology community organizer and advocate who organized the weekend, said there's a strong current of interest in the city about education technology.
"I go to two meetings a week now where people are talking about the future of education and technology," Brenner said. "There are all these ingredients in place to say Baltimore is the No. 1 place for education technology."
Amid the rush of optimism in the education technology field -- driven in recent years by ubiquitous broadband, wireless Internet and smart mobile devices -- there are also skeptics.
Henry Levin, the director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Columbia University, said for-profit online education companies may offer communities and parents more options for children, but he said the industry still needs to prove its value with more empirical studies.
"Very little careful research" has been done because tracking student outcomes over time is expensive, he said.
"I love the demonstrations," Levin said of the online curriculums. "But when the pedal hits the metal, [online K-12 education] hasn't shown any advantages right now over conventional instruction."
Connections has been steadily growing while following in the wake of K12 Inc., which had revenues of $522 million last year.
The companies have hired lobbyists to promote their interests in some states. Laws vary, with 30 states allowing full-time online learning programs for public schools, according to Patrick.
In Maryland, a law passed last year allows counties to set up their own virtual schooling programs. So far, however, no county in the state has contracted with a for-profit company to run a virtual public school.
The Maryland State Department of Education runs a virtual school program that offers online courses for credit, but a student cannot get a diploma through the program.
Baltimore County ran a pilot program with Connections for 100 students in 2007, but it was cut the following year because of a lack of funding. The county is now developing its own online curriculum geared toward students who must stay home either for disciplinary reasons or because they are ill or require specialized care.
In Baltimore City, the school system uses an online program from a private company, Apex Learning, to supplement students' classroom lessons, but it does not offer a full-time virtual public school program.
Connections' Dreyer thinks Maryland has not embraced online learning because its public schools are generally well-funded and turn out good students. Other states, however, have fewer financial resources and look to technology to better serve schoolchildren, she said.
"Even our education budgets [in Maryland] are starting to be challenged at the state and district level," Dreyer said. "That may be the catalyst that requires Maryland to start thinking more about the involvement of technology and how it can give better outcomes to students."