A School With No Walls

SEATTLE, May 10, 2006 — -- Imagine going to a high school with no football team, no prom, no lockers, lunchroom or even a bell to ring in the beginning of the school day. Students have begun to enroll in just such a school in Washington state -- a school that students can attend only online.

It's called the Insight School of Washington, and the company that runs it hopes to launch similar online schools nationwide.

While many schools now offer some online courses, the Insight School will be the first to allow students to graduate without ever setting foot in an actual classroom. The school plans to target a variety of students who might thrive in this type of program, such as home-schooled children, children with physical disabilities and those who have dropped out or had a hard time staying in traditional public schools.

The school is public and therefore does not charge tuition. Each student will receive a free laptop and printer and funds to help pay for Internet access.

The school plans to have about 30 teachers and expects a student-teacher ratio of about 21 to 1. A complete high school curriculum is on offer, including more than 140 courses.

But in a virtual world, how do you guard against cheating? The school plans to use a variety of software to check for plagiarism, but it could be a challenge.

Critics also worry that the lack of personal interaction could be a serious drawback.

"Students need the classroom experience with teachers and their peers. That's important, that's valuable," said Rich Wood, at the Washington Education Association.

Wood said people are also worried about what he calls the privatization of public education.

"Do they truly exist to educate the students of Washington or do they exist to make money for business people," he said.

But school officials said there is room across the educational spectrum for a variety of experiences.

"We're not trying to be something that is all things," Bill Finkbeiner, the school's executive director, told reporters. "But for some, we can offer something that is a better alternative."

He has pointed to traditional school dropout statistics that cite the need to take care of a child or family member as examples of people who could thrive in this type of virtual classroom. And not all personal interaction will come in the form of an online chat. School officials said they plan to organize occasional field trips and even dances so that virtual classmates can have a chance to actually meet.

The program launches its first class this fall, and much is still a work in progress.

The exact number of teachers will be determined by how many students enroll. Many of the teachers may work only part-time, some may be retired educators, but they will all be required to have state teaching certificates.

And the school's curriculum must meet state standards. Students cannot graduate without taking the very same statewide exam as other students across the state of Washington.

Even with those opportunities for socializing and the requirement that students meet state standards, Wood, at the Washington Education Association, remains concerned. "Online learning has potential, but it should be used to augment classroom learning, not replace it entirely," he said.

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