More schools going virtual

Several state education departments and school districts are signing up

for online Advanced Placement courses provided by Apex Learning Inc. as

a first step to creating virtual high schools with an array of course offerings.

This week, Apex Learning announced agreements with Utah and Wisconsin.

In the past two months Michigan, Kentucky, New Mexico, Washington and the

Houston Independent School District — the fourth largest school district

in the country — have partnered with the firm to develop virtual schools.

Bellevue, Wash.-based Apex Learning provides an online learning environment,

10 accredited, highly interactive courses and support services. The idea

is that students can take subjects such as AP calculus if they have a scheduling

conflict in school or if there aren't enough qualified students or teachers

for a school to offer its own AP courses.

Virtual schools can help mitigate the teacher shortage that school districts

across the country are experiencing, said Keith Oelrich, Apex Learning's

president and chief executive officer.

"We give school districts an element of flexibility in planning their

teacher workload that they don't have today," he said. Apex's teacher pool

includes teachers who have retired or who want to stay home with their young

children yet stay involved in their profession, he said.

Each course is designed by AP teachers and includes personalized study

plans, multimedia simulations, online discussions with students and teachers,

readings, and assignments. Students can take the courses during designated

class time, at an after-school computer laboratory or at home.

The company also offers virtual assessment and review materials to supplement

the online courses or regular AP classes taught in schools. Most colleges

will grant credit or waive a course requirement for students who earn a

good AP exam score.

The federal Advanced Placement Incentive Program is among several public

and private grant opportunities states can take advantage of to fund the

virtual AP courses, which cost $350 per student. This school year, the program

has $15 million, with the average award estimated at $375,000, according

to the Federal Register.

Apex Learning was started in 1997 by Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul

Allen as a research organization to explore how to use the Internet and

other emerging communication technologies to aid education. The company

predicts it will have 50,000 students enrolled by the end of 2001, Oelrich

said.

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