IOWA CITY — With her upright bass packed into her car, Nina Bernat spent a week in February auditioning for four music schools on the East Coast.
Had she been attending a traditional high school, it would have been a difficult trip to plan, said Nina, 17, who is now bound for Juilliard in New York City. Having a typical school schedule also would have cut into the hours she spends everyday rehearsing her music.
Nina knew “this year was the year,” she said, to impress colleges. That’s why she transferred in the fall from West High in Iowa City to the Iowa Connections Academy, an entirely virtual public school program.
“If I want to be going to a school like Juilliard, I need to be practicing four hours a day,” said Nina, who graduated in May. “And I’m not able to extend my day past 24 hours.” Schedule flexibility is a draw for many of the Iowa Connections Academy’s students, said James Brauer, the principal of the K-12 school.
“It’s a very unique and awesome experience,” Brauer said. “Now we can work with students, from a curricular and instructional standpoint, to meet their needs as opposed to what that traditional model requires them to operate in.”
The virtual school is one of few “school choice” programs in Iowa, which Republicans in the state legislature have said they would like to bolster next session.
Advocates for school choice generally hold that parents should have a greater say in where their child attends school, despite possible financial barriers.
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“Education isn’t a one-size-fits-all thing,” said Trish Wilger, president of the Iowa Alliance for Choice in Education. “Public school works for some children, a non-public school might work better for some, a virtual or home-school setting might be a better fit for others.”
Brauer, a former alternative high school administrator, said virtual classes can better suit students like Nina, as well as those who have fallen behind in or dropped out of school.
“For whatever reason at home, they need something that’s just flexible enough that the formal schooling isn’t only happening from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.,” Brauer said.
Most Iowa Connections Academy students log in online and complete lessons independently, and Brauer said students and teachers can communicate via email or video chat services.
Staci Hupp, a spokeswoman for the Iowa Department of Education said online learning “is the right choice for some families and worth exploring.”
She said there are many reasons why a student might pursue an online learning environment, including, for example, needing more personalized instruction, if they are bullied or if they have fallen behind in school or are at risk of dropping out.
The state’s two virtual school programs, the Iowa Connections Academy and the Iowa Virtual Academy, receive the same per-pupil level of funding as other Iowa public schools. Students open enroll into the programs, just as they could to a public school district that neighbors their home district, and their per-pupil funding follows them to their new school.
Opponents of school choice initiatives tend to worry the programs will financially drain public school districts.
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But speaking generally, Wilger of the Iowa Alliance for School Choice said she doesn’t see school choice options causing “a mass exodus” from public schools.
Only 800 of Iowa’s roughly 481,500 students were enrolled in the virtual schools during this school year, according to data from the Iowa Department of Education.
Both online schools are also governed by public school boards — Iowa Connections Academy by the CAR Community School District in rural Anita, about 70 miles west of Des Moines, and Iowa Virtual Academy by the Clayton Ridge Community School District in northeast Iowa.
As entities of public school districts, both schools report proficiency, attendance and other data sets to the state that are required of all public schools.
When his virtual school program started about five years ago, Brauer said there was some concern over diverting public school funds from a student’s resident district to another.
But recently, as legislators have turned toward other school choice issues, open enrolling into a publicly governed virtual school has been cast as the preferred option, he said, to programs like Educational Savings Accounts, which could allow parents to take their child’s per-pupil funding to private schools.
“There’s been a shift in public policy debate,” Brauer said. “Now, as Iowa is exploring different school choice options with public funds ... it’s drawn the attention away from open enrollment.”
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