Oregon online charter school has 3,000 students

TIGARD, Ore. (AP) On any given school day brothers Andrew and Robert Cousineau get out of bed and head for their dining room table, where they will stay for about seven hours, working on their computers. The boys are both enrolled in an online public charter school.

It's not home-school. The boys work from their Tigard home but the school not their parents dictates the curriculum. The students have teachers and live-chat lectures. They have the same textbooks as the students at other public schools. But most of the day, they work alone on their computers, clicking their way through lessons and quizzes and tests.

It's that sort of flexibility that sold the two Cousineau boys on Oregon Connections Academy. With 3,000 students, it's the state's largest public charter school.

Now is the time of year, before the Jan. 31 start of the semester, when many parents around the state are considering whether to enroll their children in the school. There are many reasons students and parents consider online charters: overcrowding at their local school, social or behavioral issues, boredom with the pace of traditional schools, a desire for more flexibility.

The Cousineaus started looking for an alternative when Andrew was at Fowler Middle School in Tigard.

"His middle school was not a good fit for him," said the boys' mother, Jessica Cousineau, 35. "He needed to slow to the speed of the class. The work was boring and they couldn't move him ahead because of school policy. ... We needed an alternative."

On a recent weekday, as Jessica Cousineau quietly walked on the tan carpet, doing chores, Andrew, 15, turned to his brother and snickered.

"Look at this," he whispered. Robert, 12, leaned away from his netbook screen to see his brother's laptop.

"What are you doing?" their mom asked.

"Nothing," Andrew said.

"Then let's start doing something," she said.

The room went quiet again, with just the unsynchronized cuckoo clocks ticking on either side of the table where the boys work.

Robert returned to his netbook, muttering, with his seventh-grade math textbook in his lap. On the screen was a triangle on a graph and, in a purple box, three quiz questions. If the triangle were moved three blocks down on the graph, what would the triangle's coordinates be?

"I missed that one," he said, not seeming too disappointed. "These are worth a thousandth of my grade, so I don't really care."

Robert moved to the online charter school after fifth grade. He said that back then he wouldn't know how much each assignment was worth. "Teachers never tell you things like that," he said.

Robert is about two months into school this semester, but is already wrapping up the second semester of seventh-grade math. "I hope to be a full year ahead (in math) by the end of the year. I have all these assignments, and I could just keep going," he said. "I can work whenever I want on any lesson. I can work two hours then take a break. I get a lot of choices."

Andrew sat right next to Robert. The Dead Kennedys blasted through Andrew's headphones as he checked his Facebook page, where he said he was having an argument with a friend over radical feminism. When his mother would walk by, he'd click back to his biology lesson about respiration in animal and plant cells. For him, it's science day.

"I did English yesterday," he said, plucking the earbuds out of his ears. "Once I get thinking in that way I don't have to do something else. I get in the groove."

Aside from checking them into school each morning and getting weekly calls from their teachers, Jessica Cousineau is not an active part of their school day.

"Sometimes they'll say 'Mom, I need a head of cabbage for a science project,' but mostly I'm not involved," she said.

Outside of academics, the boys' lives are like those of their friends in traditional schools.

Andrew wrestles for the Tualatin High School team. Robert rides bikes with his friends after school, plays competitive chess and is on a local recreation league's wrestling team.

Despite all his activities, sometimes Robert still misses his school friends during the day, he said, but appreciates the freedom to control more of his time.

Jessica's other two children, Timothy, 8, and Sharon, 10, both love their elementary schools, so she wouldn't consider pulling them out at least not now.

"The education needs to fit the kid," she said.

Online charter schools aren't for everyone.

Especially in the younger grades, Oregon Connections Academy students typically test lower than state averages in math and English. And the school's graduation rate is dismal, 34 percent compared with a state average of 68 percent, according to the state's latest data.

The Oregon Legislature in 2011 limited online charter school enrollment to 16,000 students, but enrollment is nowhere near that high.

Oregon Connections' 3,000 students make up about half the state's online public charter school enrollment. It is based in Scio, but recruits students from all over the state.

Anita Menon of Beaverton and her daughter, Alisha, 13, checked out the school at a recent event for new and prospective students held at Bullwinkle's Restaurant in Wilsonville.

Alisha is in eighth grade, and she has heard kids in Beaverton High School sometimes sit on the floor because classes are so crowded. Anita Menon wonders whether her daughter would do better with phone calls to her teachers and a few hours each week in lectures.

On the other side of the room was Angela Coughran, of Salem, and her daughter, Hailey, 13, who looked utterly miserable.

Angela Coughran said her daughter's seventh-grade class is overcrowded. Hailey, who doesn't want to leave her friends, said her mother is also concerned about all the social drama at the school and occasional bullying.

"I'm trying to convince Hailey on this. Kids, please help," Angela pleaded with students already enrolled at the online charter school. "I just think this is the future."

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press