On the discussion of homeschooling, online schooling, and charter schooling.
CMA is the online school our daughter attends:
Lawrence A. Parker
Philosopher and Educational Consultant
School Away From School
By EMILY WHITE
Published: December 7, 2003
Andy Markishtum's hair reaches past his shoulders, thick and shining.
He speaks in a low monotone, a rocker growl, and his favorite band is
Cradle of Filth. As a student at McKay High School in Salem, Ore.,
Andy was part of the stoner crowd -- a self-described slacker with a
backpack full of half-finished assignments. ''I'd get too
distracted,'' he says. ''There would be kids sitting right next to me
talking or something, and instead of paying attention to the teacher,
I would drift off. Someone would drop a book, and I'd have to look.''
Attention-deficit disorder was diagnosed; for a while, Andy took
Ritalin, but it gave him migraines. His mom decided he needed to get
out of McKay and leave behind his old scene, his old messed-up self.
Andy enrolled in Salem-Keizer Online high school, and he says, ''Now
I can really concentrate.''
Salem-Keizer Online, or S.K.O., is one in a growing number of public,
private and charter schools available to kids who are looking for an
alternative to a traditional education. Commonly called ''virtual
school,'' it's a way of attending school at home without the hovering
claustrophobia of home-schooling. S.K.O. has 131 students enrolled in
the Salem area. Nationwide, there were about 50,000 students in
virtual courses last year. As a business, virtual school is booming.
Jim Cramer, co-host of CNBC's ''Kudlow & Cramer,'' calls online-
school-software companies a hot commodity.
Andy Markishtum says that without virtual school, he ''probably would
have dropped out.'' Now he will graduate almost on time. The biggest
problem was that ''too many people were too dumb.'' The teachers
bored him, the homework flummoxed him, he hated the mandatory pep
assemblies ''that were really prep assemblies.''
Walking through his old school, Andy points out the cafeteria table
he and his friends used to sit at. ''People would shun us, even
though we had never done anything to them,'' he says. A sign
reads ''Drug and Gang Free: McKay Togetherness.'' The bell rings, and
the hall floods with bodies. A few clean-cut kids grimace at Andy's
flowing hair. It's not so hard to understand why Andy would want to
get out of here, why he would rather enroll in a school he can log
into anywhere -- the public library or his mother's house. Now
instead of walking through the dreaded double doors past a suspicious
security officer, Andy enters a Web site where a plain white screen
welcomes him: ''Sign in!'' He checks his e-mail and clicks on the
day's assignments, blasting music from his stereo, free of the
tyranny of class periods.
Virtual school seems like an ideal choice for kids who don't fit in
or can't cope. ''I'm a nervous, strung-out sort of person,'' says
Erin Bryan, who attends the online Oregon-based CoolSchool. Erin used
to attend public school in Hood River, Ore., but ''I didn't like the
environment,'' she says. ''I am afraid of public speaking, and I
would get really freaked out in the mornings.''
Kyle Drew, 16, a junior at S.K.O., says: ''I couldn't get it
together. I was skipping more and more classes, until I was afraid to
go to school.'' Leavitt Wells, 13, from Las Vegas, was an ostracized
girl with revenge on her mind. ''The other kids didn't want anything
to do with me,'' she says. ''I'd put exploded gel pens in their
drawers.'' Now she attends the Las Vegas Odyssey Charter School
online during the day, and when her adrenaline starts pumping, she
charges out into the backyard and jumps on the trampoline.
On S.K.O.'s Web site, students can enter a classroom without being
noticed by their classmates by clicking the ''make yourself
invisible'' icon -- a good description of what these kids are
actually doing. Before the Internet, they would have had little
choice but to muddle through. Now they have disappeared from the
school building altogether, a new breed of outsider, loners for the
Douglas Koch is only 12, but he is already a high-school sophomore.
He says that he hopes to graduate by the time he's 15. Today he sits
at his computer in his Phoenix living room -- high ceilings and white
walls, a sudden hard rain stirring up a desire to look out the
shuttered windows. Douglas's 10-year-old brother, Gregory, is
stationed across the room from him -- he is also a grade-jumper. The
Koch brothers have been students at the private Christa McAuliffe
Academy, an online school, for more than a year now. While S.K.O. is
a public school, C.M.A. is private, charging $250 a month and
reaching kids from all over the country. From Yakima, Wash., it
serves 325 students, most of whom attend classes year-round, and
employs 27 teachers and other staff members.
Douglas looks at his monitor, searching for evidence of his Spanish
teacher. ''Oh, she's already there,'' he says, checking a box at the
corner of the screen. He puts on a headset and greets her through the
attached microphone. Her live voice comes through the computer
speakers, tinny and distant. The lesson today is about El Salvador:
its population and geography, with a brief mention of ''la guerra.''
Before he speaks, he always presses ''Talk.'' There's a moment of
confusion when the teacher tries to chat about hurricanes; she can't
remember the word in English. As she casts around for it, the speaker
is silent, and it's hard to tell if she is still there. At one point,
Douglas clicks the corner of the screen, and the lesson
disappears. ''Whoops!'' he says, before he retrieves the page and the
vanished teacher with it.
Across the room, Gregory answers multiple-choice math questions about
inverse numbers. He aces his answers, and the screen
flashes ''Good,'' ''Excellent,'' ''Well done.'' Gregory isn't in
contact with a human teacher right now; he will turn in a test later
and wait for an e-mail message telling him how he did. Both brothers
have seen pictures of their teachers on the school Web site. When
they graduate, they will travel to Washington State and meet them in
At lunchtime they get up from their computers and go to the kitchen
together. They take a little time out to pacify the dog with
biscuits. For the end of the school day there are stacks of games:
ski racing, backyard baseball, chess masters, Lego racers. Their
mother, Katie Craven, says that at first she wondered if keeping the
kids home was the right thing. ''It was only supposed to be
temporary,'' she says, ''but the kids really liked it.''
The Koch brothers have an aura of success. The sons of a computer-
programmer father, they are little versions of Bill Gates hatching in
the incubator of their living room. Yet some of their talk sounds
''There used to be a guy in my brother's class,'' Douglas says. ''He
was from Guam. But then he graduated.''
Sometimes, before class, they chitchat with other online kids about
the weather: ''It is snowing here.'' ''It is 104 degrees here.''
Names light up on the screen to reveal who is speaking, what remote
computer the voice is coming from. Then the class begins, and the
chitchat stops. No notes passed, no spit wads thrown, no stories
concocted about what the teacher does when she goes home, no eye
Do virtual-school kids miss the volatile human combustion of the
classroom? Douglas and Gregory don't seem to. They seem happy to be
able to stay at home and never put their shoes on. Andy admits to
missing it sometimes. ''Every once in a while I think it would be
cool to go back to high school because there are tons of people
there,'' he says. ''But at the same time, there are too many problems
Andy lost contact with most of his friends when he left McKay. He
doesn't know where they are anymore. While virtual school doesn't
require that you leave your peers behind, it makes it harder to feel
as if you're part of a crowd. Erin Bryan, from CoolSchool, still
keeps in touch with her two closest friends, but sometimes, she says,
she feels as if she lives in a separate world. ''I'll look at photo
albums at their houses, and I'll feel left out,'' she says. ''There
are pictures of parties I didn't go to.''
Just as video games provide cartoon versions of real landscapes, the
virtual school imitates the spaces of a real school. Kids take tests
in virtual gymnasiums, they click into virtual classrooms and hand in
papers to icons made to look like teacher mailboxes. Some virtual
schools have student stores where kids can buy pens, notebooks or T-
shirts imprinted with the school name to make them feel as if they're
part of a real institution.
S.K.O.'s administrators say they believe that they have found a cure
for many educational ills. Since the kids are gone, they can't act up
in school. ''There tends to be less behavior problems that we see,''
says the program coordinator, Jim Saffeels. ''We never do behavior
referrals.'' Kids are never sent to the principal's office. Only when
a kid has not been heard from over e-mail for a week or so do the
adults start to worry, sending out messages: Are you there? Are you
I'm talking to Saffeels in the offices that S.K.O. shares with the
district's teen parent program. Pregnant girls drift in and out, some
carrying babies on their hips -- another school population that is
encouraged to make itself invisible. Phones ring incessantly. It's
the first day of school, and there's a glitch: many S.K.O. students
never received their passwords. They can't get through the virtual-
school doors. (The computer problems are numerous. Later, I'll go to
a boy's house and see this message on his screen: ''Cannot resolve
The principal, Mary Jean Sandall, rushes in wearing a crisp pantsuit;
she seems exhilarated, running in high gear. When she talks about the
transition into a new Web-based program (which one teacher calls ''a
scramble''), it is clear that Sandall isn't a tech geek. She has an
amusing computer language all her own: content is ''chunked into'' an
electronic frame; the system doesn't require students to download
files that ''suck up lots of stuff.'' Sandall explains the origins of
S.K.O.: eight years ago, word came down from the school board
to ''pursue distance options,'' and the Salem-Keizer school district
began offering online courses. Demand was so great that the virtual
model eventually received public financing.
Sandall sees online kids as vessels of the future. ''This is a 21st-
century model of learning,'' she says. ''If you're a total face-to-
face learner, you may not get that. But as industry goes to a model
of learning online, and professional advancement means you have to do
things online, I think these kids have an advantage.''
Burt Kanner, a math teacher, appears in the doorway, and Sandall
waves at him excitedly. Kanner, a gray-haired, soft-spoken man, nods
back at her. He seems skeptical about all this virtual-school hype.
For most of his 45 years as a teacher, Kanner has dealt with kids
face to face. Now he spends a good deal of the time trying to figure
out how to navigate the new Web site, sending e-mail messages to
faceless kids, messages that sound like the comments the computer
generated for Gregory Koch: ''Good job,'' ''Well done,'' ''Keep
''It doesn't really feel like teaching,'' he tells me as we leave the
office and his bosses. ''I miss the performance aspect of teaching,
where you own the knowledge and have some control. Now I am mainly a
troubleshooter.'' I ask him if he resisted becoming a virtual
teacher. He says that it's just one more change in the rules of the
game. ''My whole career is about changes,'' Kanner says. ''I take it
all one step at a time.''
Lacey Calvo, 16, was assigned Kanner for online algebra last year.
She describes him as ''really helpful.'' She enjoys having invisible
teachers, because ''most of the time teachers get on my nerves,'' she
says. ''They treat us like children, and you can't really be
independent.'' Lacey enrolled at S.K.O. a year and a half ago, after
she and her mom decided that South Salem High School was a nest of
trouble. ''All the girls came to school half-dressed,'' she
says. ''Students would be disruptive, and you can't concentrate at
all. And you actually spend more time socializing than anything
Lacey wore makeup, although she makes it clear that ''I never had
black fingernails or anything.'' She took part in the gossipy world,
she says, but it started to pull her in and fill up her thoughts, and
she would skip classes and hang out with ''trampy'' girls. ''I didn't
care about anything or anybody. I did whatever I wanted to do. Now I
help my mom pay the bills and take my brother to school.''
Lacey doesn't worry about makeup anymore. She doesn't have to go
shopping for back-to-school clothes or worry that some random girl is
going to hate her outfit. She goes to school at a desk in the living
room, surrounded by video games, unwashed dishes, her brother's toy
car collections. She copies down lesson goals in a neat looping
script in multicolored notebooks. Inside each of them she has written
her name and address and her list of classes. She is taking more
classes than most kids because she wants to finish soon and be
released from high-school limbo. For P.E. credit, Lacey takes long
walks around the neighborhood, a run-down area where the streets are
named after birds: Finch, Song Sparrow. It seems remarkable that this
is actually P.E. -- an evening stroll instead of the horror of chin-
ups and rope climbs, the locker room where girls calculate who wears
the biggest bra.
Lacey has rejected the wild life she led at South Salem, but there
are traces of her restlessness in certain stories she tells me. ''I
like to get out and go downtown and look at the cute guys,'' she
says. ''A couple of weeks ago, I went to the river and jumped off a
bridge.'' Like Andy, Lacey does not quite trust the self that emerged
in the halls of high school, and she says that if she had stayed, she
would have entangled herself in a bad fate.
When talking to virtual-school kids, this is a common thread: the
sense that they have escaped something dangerous by getting out of
high school. ''I saw the way the social system was set up, and I
wanted to get away from that,'' says Kristen Dearing, a student at
Basehor-Linwood charter school in Kansas.
MacKenzie Winslow, 14, who attends the Laurel Springs school in Ojai,
Calif., from her home in Colorado, says: ''I didn't want a bad
experience. I had a lot of friends who'd gone to high school, and
they said the kids were pretty nasty. I didn't want to deal with
Efforts are made to socialize virtual-school kids; dances are held,
game nights and bowling nights. At Odyssey Charter School in Las
Vegas, the students occasionally get together for trips to the Nevada
History Museum or to the shark-reef exhibit at the Mandalay Bay
hotel. At Electronic Charter School in Kansas, there are nights at
a ''fun center.'' Jennifer Vandiver is the prom coordinator at
Christa McAuliffe Academy. In a dreamy voice, she describes the prom,
which takes place in a ''room full of mirrors'' with a cardboard
Eiffel Tower. Kids fly in from far-flung locations; there's a get-
acquainted picnic the day before. Faces are put to screen names. The
kids are like tourists thrown together to see the sights. They are
exotic to one another.
These efforts at cheery socialization are exactly what Andy
Markishtum is grateful to escape. Walking through his old school, he
laughs when we are confronted with banners promoting school spirit
days: Sleepy Seniorzzz (pajama day) and Juniors of the Caribbean
(pirate day). For Andy, it's good riddance to all that fake
togetherness. ''Hat day was the only day I liked,'' he says. ''Then
they took it away.'' Now he can turn in his assignments at midnight
if he wants to.
Because the phenomenon of full-time online education is relatively
new, there is little research into its lasting effects -- whether its
practitioners become introverts and computer zombies or whether, as
MacKenzie Winslow's mother puts it, the kids ''have gathered their
energy so they can go out into the world and be more effective.''
Before Columbine, the social Darwinism of the hallway was seen as
character-building. Now we effortlessly imagine those ''characters''
hiding guns in trench coats, or dead. Promoters of virtual school
promise that their Web sites are safe from online predators, and
traditional school is portrayed as a haven for bullies, a brutal,
corrupted environment in which violent confrontations are bound to
Yet it is also true that there is a beauty in high school: those
long, exhausting hours full of other kids, everyone trying to
interpret one another. It's a beauty that Gus Van Sant evokes in his
new Columbine-inspired film, ''Elephant'' -- kids break dancing and
taking pictures and making out, even as the school day is headed for
For Lacey Calvo, virtual school has meant a taming and organizing of
her restlessness. ''I have grown up, and I have a grip on reality,''
she says. Now she can help her overworked single mom around the
house. ''My mom knows I am here for her and always will be,'' she
says. When the buzzer rings on the washer, she can get up from her
earth science class to shift the load over to the dryer, and no
teacher says, ''Sit down, young lady.'' She can take breaks in the
garage and watch her neighbor's new lawn being delivered. She doesn't
have to sit in a classroom, wondering if she can trust herself or the
kids around her, wondering what she forgot at home.
Emily White is the author of ''Fast Girls: Teenage Tribes and the
Myth of the Slut.''