Education and Communication: Online Schools in Oregon Under Threat

I recently heard an interesting report on Jefferson Public Radio (JPR), the radio station I listen to, about the Oregon Virtual Academy (OVA), an online public school in Oregon. Oregon legislators are apparently concerned about the regulation of online schools and there’s a proposal to place a two year freeze on making new online schools and expanding enrollment in Senate Bill 767. A lot of the reporting on this issue I’ve encountered has focused on parents being angry about not being allowed to choose which schools to send their children to.

But the JPR report brought up a really interesting point, and one which I would like to see Oregon media discussing more closely. The reporter visited the home of an Oregon student with disabilities to talk to her about her experiences with OVA. She has a learning disability, and in particular has trouble with short term memory. Her mother talked about the various public and private schools that her daughter was placed in, about struggling with “basic” homework which her daughter didn’t remember the next day, and the student talked about her frustrations with conventional education. She became physically ill due to stress from school.

When she started going to OVA and did schoolwork at her own pace, however, the student experienced rapid improvement. She went from lagging behind her peers on assessment tests1 to testing comparably to them, her anxiety was greatly reduced, and her physical symptoms of stress and anxiety resolved.

Clearly, going to school online was a better solution for this student with disabilities. Being able to set her schedule and to take time to go in-depth on some things while moving more quickly on material she was confident about allowed her to improve academically. And there are lots of students who may be in this position. Some students with disabilities don’t learn as well in conventional education environments; why not provide them with an opportunity to learn online? Some students live in really remote areas, and spend a lot of time traveling to get to school 2. Some schools aren’t accessible (even though they should be). There are all kinds of reasons why online education should be an option for students who want it.

And, of course, there’s an argument to be made for enrichment. Oregon is a financially struggling state, and many of its schools cannot afford to offer things like a wide range of language classes, advanced placement classes, and interesting electives for students. For students who want these things, including disabled students, the education system is limiting. Online education, however, can incorporate coursework and teachers from all over the world. Students have more opportunities than they do in physical classrooms, especially if they live in low-income areas where schools are just not getting the funding they need to provide an adequate education, let alone one which offers advanced options or one which serves students with disabilities.

I understand the concerns of Oregon’s legislature. Regulation is important, and it’s important to make sure that students are getting access to educations which meet basic standards. But there’s a kneejerk response against online schooling, homeschooling, and unschooling which I really don’t like, not least because it does a disservice to people with disabilities who cannot learn in conventional school environments. It all gets back to the overall social attitude which privileges able bodies and methods of communication over all, which argues that there’s a “healthy” and “right” way to be and that everyone else just needs to be “fixed” (or hidden), not accommodated.

We need to be addressing the fact that people have different learning and education styles, that school is not one size fits all, and that an important aspect of regulation should include making sure that all students are provided with an opportunity to learn in a way which works for them. To deprive Oregon students of online education seems a great shame to me; surely there has to be a better way to study this and to improve the approach to regulation than freezing online schooling for two years.

  1. I think that assessment tests are extremely flawed, for all kinds of reasons which I’m sure that many of you are familiar with. However, they are used as a common metric, and they were referenced in this report, which is why I’m including the fact that her test scores improved.
  2. When I was in high school, students traveled from places like Cloverdale and Point Arena, two hours away from Mendocino, to get to school. While schools were locally available, they couldn’t attend because the curricula didn’t meet their needs and due to concerns like violence; you don’t want to be gay at Point Arena High, for example.

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

8 thoughts on “Education and Communication: Online Schools in Oregon Under Threat

  1. I think schools like this are a really great thing. I mean, they’d be terrible for me–I really need a structure imposed from outside in order to function well, and going to school and attending classes at specific times provides that for me.

    But, precisely because I have certain needs when it comes to getting the best out of education, I understand that this is the most effective way for some people to learn, and they really deserve to have access to that option.

    I hope this situation is resolved in a way that allows those students who need these services continued access. And, ideally, expands access so that students who could use these services but are excluded for whatever reason get their chance.

  2. I was threatened by the school administration my senior year of high school, when I went weeks out of school with awful back pain where I couldn’t even sit upright more than an hour a day. They said I had to get back in that plastic chair “or else.” My mom has been harrassed by police about my older brothers back when they attended this very school, so she took them quite seriously.

    We started looking into options for withdrawing from the district and doing home teaching, but they were intentionally obstructive, telling me that I would not be allowed to do that, and even with a doctor’s note I could not miss any more school. I had to be physically present, even though I was so out of it I wasn’t parsing the most basic of sentences — certainly I wasn’t comprehending and retaining any information. All I was doing was sitting in that stupid plastic chair, making those school administrators feel better. I would be in school for half a day — very occasionally, a full day — and have to go home, and miss another three days recovering just from the time spent sitting in those hard plastic chairs.

    Clearly, this wasn’t about my personal welfare or education. It was about maintaining my conformity. It was about keeping their drone in its designated place, making sure it didn’t stray and give the other drones any ideas.

    I know it’s uncharitable of me, but I don’t trust school administrations. I also don’t trust most teachers — by far the majority of them were more concerned with maintaining a sense of control and superiority than with helping their students learn. There were some amazing people working in those school systems — but most of them ended up pushed out of the system in one way or another, because they were treated the same way I was! They were threatened and obstructed and had support withdrawn because they didn’t stay in their place.

    Section 504 and IDEA plans or not (US, at least), secondary school is not often a friendly place for many disabled students…

  3. amandaw: Were you able to graduate on time? I’m just curious, because one of my friends got delayed a year after missing quite a bit of school. Fortunately, the administration was more compassionate–she was allowed to finish the year at another school, and returned to redo her senior year.

    This backlash saddens me. The more we learn about how people learn, the more obvious it is that one size does not fit all. Like dorian, online education would be horrible for me–I need the outside structure of a traditional school environment–but the high school I did attend wasn’t great either, largely because it was a smaller school in a rural area. There wasn’t much offered I actually wanted to take. Online schooling seems like it would be a great supplement/replacement to conventional schooling for students whose needs aren’t being met, for whatever reason.

  4. I’m homeschooling my son using a curriculum also used by many online schools. He simply does poorly in school because of his neurological differences. He is SO much happier this way. For many who cannot afford to purchase the curriculum, these online schools are a great way to get quality schooling without the stress of being in a physical school environment. I know many many other parents of kids with disabilities who also homeschool for these reasons. In fact, kids with disablities are the fastest growing segment of homeschoolers, as schools have been cutting back on “expensive” services for disabled kids.

  5. I totally agree. Ontario recently developed online courses for high school students. But just the courses are online, not a “school”. Some students definitely don’t have the self-discipline for these courses but for others they could be a great thing. Also, we recently got rid of the requirement that you have to attend a certain number of days to pass a course. At first I didn’t understand why this was a good idea but for students who for whatever reason can’t make it to school more than half the time but can teach themselves, this is good.

  6. I only wish that there were online public schools available when I was a youngster and coping with a neurological condition. The school administrator was not sympathetic about my need to be absent until a medication regemin could be successfully implemented for me, demanding my return, much like amandaw’s experience, but when I was ready to come back, the administration suddenly became cagey, suddenly afraid of lawsuits, and tried to convince my parents to find alternative schooling for me. As one could imagine, as if trying to maintain friendships while coping with a neurological condition was easy, a lot of rumors about what was “wrong” with me started through the mill, and by the time I returned, I was greeted by a very vicious, cruel welcome wagon.

    Ms. M – I am so impressed with parents who find homeschooling solutions for their children and make sure their educational needs are being met! During the controversy of whether or not I should return to school, my dad seriously considered figuring out a way to homeschool me, but my mom put the kibosh on it. I think he would have done a great job, and it sounds like you’re doing a great job, helping your son learn. Blessings to you!

  7. My abusive mother used homeschooling as a way to keep additional control over me and prevent anyone from finding out about her behavior, so I’m always leery of things that remove socialization (and yes, I know and understand and faced physical and emotional bullying when I did finally get to go to a school that didn’t serve my educational needs. It was still an improvement.) I know there are people for whom it works well or for whom it is better than the alternatives, but I do think there are very real concerns about home and unschooling that often get glossed over by proponents. As a home schooled student, I can say it isn’t always the best answer even when it’s possible, and no, I don’t believe parents should always get to decide.

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