The reason Julie Reeves left the classroom is sitting in her lap. And she has a bit of cold.
Abby is 6-months old, and she’s being held strategically by her mom, just out of arm’s reach of a laptop and her daily to-do list. The neatly-typed piece of paper shows when Reeves will need to check in on her students in Wilmington, Alamance County, and western North Carolina. She’s in Knightdale, and will use a variety of ways to make that connection, including using phone conversations, multimedia presentations, written assignments, and texting.
“Now if my baby is having a bad day or she’s sick, I may not get to this until my husband gets home from work at 4 o’clock,” said Reeves. “But if she’s having a good day or she’s taking a nap or if she’s playing, than I can go in and do my work for those classes.”
The North Carolina Virtual Public School is the second largest state-run online school in the country – behind only Florida. It’s grown every year since launching in 2007 and this year is serving 57,000 students from every school district in the state.
About 800 teachers teach in the North Carolina Virtual Public School. It’s run by the Department of Public Instruction and is very different from a virtual charter school or one of the many for-profit online tutoring programs.
Students take courses through the NCVPS for any number of reasons: a rural student who wants to take an AP class not offered at her school; a Wake County student who wants to take two classes that meet at the same time; a student who fails a class and wants to recover the credit.
Or sometimes, the NCVPS can help solve a tragic situation.
“We had a district call us up in the middle of the year and said ‘we had a teacher pass away in our school,’” said Tracy Weeks, the director of the NCVPS. “And it was a chemistry teacher, and where do you find a chemistry teacher in the middle of the year to come teach in maybe a more rural county? We’ll take a whole section of kids and work with them for the rest of the year.”
Teachers are hired on a contract basis by the Virtual Public School, and paid a little more than $300 per student – with a typical cap of 25 students per class. That’s not enough to live on, so about 60 percent of the virtual teachers already have a full-time job in a bricks and mortar classroom.
“And this is their night-time and weekend second job,” said Weeks. “So instead of working at a Belk or hostessing at a restaurant, they get to continue their practice and grow in other ways for their second job and more income.”
The Virtual Public School is one of the very few education innovations that hasn’t sparked a major political fight. Many Republicans like the cost efficiency; many Democrats like that it helps alleviate educational disparities.
“I don’t think that technology will ever replace the human factor as a teacher but it does provide a great resource for those who need other options,” said Mark Jewell, the Vice President of the North Carolina Association of Educators.
No one involved with legitimate virtual education will disagree with that assessment.
“Research shows that a student’s success is often tied to the relationship with a teacher,” said Michelle Lourcey, the Chief Academic Officer at the NCVPS.
She says teacher turnover at the NCVPS is much lower than for those based in classrooms. And teacher evaluation is different, as well. Since every virtual interaction between teachers and students is saved, evaluators can spot-check the teachers – and give constructive feedback – much more frequently than in classroom settings.
And there’s one more way virtual education has proven beneficial. Because young people are often more comfortable texting their inner-most feelings rather than expressing them verbally, virtual teachers can be lifesavers.
“My suspicion is because they didn’t have to look someone in the eye and tell it,” said Weeks. “But we have had students disclose to a teacher that they were thinking of harming themselves, and in a matter of hours, we were working with the traditional school to get them surrounded by support.”
Back at her kitchen table, Reeves prides herself on the personal relationships she builds with her students online. And although she says she sometimes misses the face-to-face interactions, she can’t imagine giving up the flexibility and balance she has now.
“I don’t have any intention of returning to the regular classroom right now,” said Reeves. “Now will that change later? That’s hard to say. But that’s not in my plan, short-term or long-term right now.”
And with that, Reeves puts six-month-old Abby into her Exersaucer and gets back to teaching. She has students to check on, hundreds of miles away.
These reports are part of American Graduate-Let’s Make it Happen!- a public media initiative to address the drop out crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.