Intellectual Internet: Virtual Academy gives students online education

SUGAR HILL - After John Sellers completed an online science quiz on watersheds Monday, the 10-year-old pulled out a textbook and started a history lesson on Abraham Lincoln.

Just another day in his classroom - which also doubles as his bedroom.

John is a fifth-grade student at Georgia Virtual Academy, a statewide online public school that currently offers kindergarten through eighth grade.

"(Georgia Virtual Academy) is an opportunity for students who aren't getting what they need in a brick-and-mortar classroom to get a flexible, individualized, high quality education," said Matt Arkin, head of school.

The Academy was approved in 2007 by the Georgia Board of Education as a state- chartered special school, which is funded by public tax dollars but run independently of a school system.

"The demand was very quickly apparent," Arkin said.

With an initial projection of 500 students, the Georgia Virtual Academy began classes on Sept. 4, 2007, Arkin said. That fall, enrollment reached 2,500 students. This year, 5,000 students attend the school.

Arkin said students come from 163 school districts throughout the state. Of those, Gwinnett has the most students enrolled in the Academy - almost 600.

The school's students seek the flexibility offered by the Academy for different reasons, Arkin said. About a third of the population was homeschooled before enrolling in the Academy. Some students have special needs, and others are gifted. Some have health problems that make a traditional classroom setting difficult. Some are professional entertainers who want to fit schoolwork around performances.

"Georgia Virtual Academy can work for every student, but not every student or family is right for Georgia Virtual Academy," Arkin said.

Because the school is funded by state tax dollars, the Academy does not charge tuition or have admission requirement. The school employs highly qualified teachers certified by the state to lead the virtual classes. Each student, however, must have a learning coach - a role often filled by a parent - present while in class.

Students are required to log a certain number of learning hours - in John's case, it's five each day - but families have flexibility in choosing the time.

John's mother, Donna Sellers, said the Georgia Virtual Academy "has been a godsend to us."

John has three illnesses - Cushing's syndrome, bipolar disorder and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. During the few years he was enrolled in Gwinnett County Public Schools, he endured teasing from his classmates and routine trips to the principal's office. When he was 8 years old, his stress level was so high, Sellers said, that his doctor warned he could have a stroke if something didn't change.

Sellers withdrew him from the elementary school after she found the Georgia Virtual Academy.

"Now his only stress is mommy says he has to do his work," said Sellers, a Sugar Hill resident and the president of Georgia Families for Public Virtual Education.

Since he started virtual classes, John has learned how to write. A couple of weeks ago, he made 100 percent on a spelling test for the first time. Although John doesn't like his spelling lessons, he knows they are important if he wants to achieve his career goal.

"If I'm going to be a firefighter, I need to know how to spell," he said.