What do you do with a nine-year-old who likes algebra? That was the puzzle Sanjay and Sapna Aggarwal had to solve in the spring of 2009.
Riya attended a traditional public school in Redmond, Washington for her first few school years before a business opportunity took the family to London for a two-year sojourn.
When Riya started in British school they found that, “she was several months behind because of her schooling in Redmond.”
With hard work she not only caught up with her classmates but lapped them and joined the school’s advanced program. When the family returned to the States in 2009, they faced a new puzzle: Riya was now two years ahead of the Redmond Public Schools.
That’s when her parents found public online learning. They gave it a try that summer, and finished their first full year with Washington Virtual Academy last June.
Customization and Flexibility
For the Aggarwal family, customization and flexibility were the main attractions of online learning—for Riya “to have a program that will allow her to study at her level, at her pace.”
With online public school, students can take courses at different grade levels based on their specific needs. For Riya this meant doing 4th grade classes in every subject but math.
She explained, “In math, I tried it out (fourth grade) and realized it was very easy, so I just skipped to fifth grade. And that one was easy, so I skipped to sixth grade.” This ten-year-old will start seventh grade math in the fall.
Like all students, Riya has a harder time with some subjects more than others. She isn’t a big fan of composition or literature but holds herself to a high standard. That means putting more time into subjects where she struggles.
Not only were Sapna and Riya happy about the customizable curriculum and flexible scheduling, they were thrilled to find the number of supplemental courses and activities available to students.
“She’s able to attend a variety of classes—poetry, literature, geography—that are really meant for higher grades,” Sapna told us. “But she’s definitely able to understand them.”
Last year Riya happened upon an enrichment course that followed two men as they sailed around the world talking about clean water. The online format allowed them to broadcast from wherever they were and gave students across the state and nation the opportunity to participate.
The Day in and Day out
For Riya, working from home is more enjoyable than sitting in a classroom. She’s not distracted by disruptions from 30-some other students, and she “doesn’t have to worry about other people whispering to me while I’m trying to concentrate on my work.”
Still, doing school online can be lonely. This was the hardest transition she had to overcome. “After a while I got used to it and learned I could meet my friends after school and have play dates.”
In spite of doing school online, virtual students have many opportunities to socialize. In fact, Riya’s favorite memories from her first year of online school were meeting her teacher in person, meeting other students at tests, and the outings where she got to meet classmates from her online classes. They went roller skating, visited museums, and more. Online learning families consistently praise the number and quality of field trips and activities available.
Riya’s program also provides students with online platforms to get to know each other. When we arrived for our interview, she was enjoying social hour in a chat and activities room with other students.
When asked what surprises she found on this year’s journey, Sapna summed it up in two words: “my daughter.” Online schooling not only allowed this mother to get to know her child’s abilities better, but also her personality.
“I didn’t know she was a very independent learner; I didn’t know the degree she could handle a project on her own.”
Sapna was amazed by how much initiative Riya took with her school work. Many students don’t have the opportunity to learn this lesson until college. Riya has quite a head start.
Riya told us that for her the most surprising part of online school was just how “kid friendly” it was. “I thought it would be more like regular school except online.” She was pleasantly surprised by how much fun she had.
Last February the Washington State House of Representatives proposed cutting state funding to all K-6 online public schools. Sapna explained her reaction:
“Right away we received an email, and I had a knot in my stomach. It’s like someone has just taken independence away from you … To think that funding could just be taken away—There are so many people depending on it.”
If online learning were to be cut out of the menu of options, Sapna says they would be forced to put Riya back into a traditional school. In that case for Riya to be challenged, Sapna would have to prepare supplemental work for her to do after school. These would be long, tiring days.
I asked Sapna what legislators need to know when they consider the importance of online learning. She answered,
“When you see your child beaming because they’re finally challenged, they’re finally moving at a pace that is best for them, when they love school as much as they do … It means the world to her. I would think in our education system, we’re trying to do what’s best for our children. And we are when we choose online schooling.”