Why Parents Choose Virtual Education for At -Risk High School Students: How Do We Support Them?

Todd Schweitzer, principal, Oregon Virtual Academy High School
Katherine Schweitzer, principal, Oregon Trail School District


IMG_1720This project performed a qualitative study using in-depth interviews to determine the reasons families enrolled their students in virtual education and to collect their reflections on their experience in virtual education after enrolling. The study interviewed eight parents or guardians, all of whom had a credit-deficient high school student at risk of not graduating who was enrolled in a virtual high school in Oregon. The interviews used 11 open-ended questions in order to answer the two research questions:

1. What are parental reasons for choosing online education for children who are at risk of not graduating from high school with their cohort due to credit deficiency?

2. What are the parents’ experiences with online education now that their child has been in the program? The findings revealed that the most-referenced reason families enrolled in virtual education was a negative relationship with a former school setting, and that all participants reported a positive experience after enrolling in virtual education.


KatieVirtual education has become an important topic of discussion in the educational world in the last decade. This format provides instruction delivered entirely or partially online. These programs have seen a dramatic increase in enrollment and a number of programs in public schools, much of which has been tied to the charter school movement active in many states (Waters, 2011). This development has happened quickly but not consistently, and programs and platforms vary significantly from school to school (Tyler & Hastings, 2011). The profile of the online learner also varies, as virtual programs serve at-risk students, gifted students, and those families that would have traditionally turned to home schooling (Roblyer, Davis, Mills, Marshall, & Pape, 2008). Because this development has been so diverse, families may choose online education for a variety of reasons: flexible scheduling, the ability for students to move at their own pace, the removal from the “mainstream” socialization of schooling, and the ability for a family to geographically relocate without interrupting schooling (Davis & Niederhauser, 2007).

Virtual education also offers components that are impossible to replicate in traditional schools. Through virtual interfaces entire scenarios and situations can be set up strictly for the purpose of study without the potential physical or emotional risks presented in real life. Students can also access a seemingly limitless number of classes and subjects because they are not restricted to the offerings in their home schools or a traditional time schedule. Online schools can also appeal to students with special needs, whether they are deficient or accelerated learners, because the students can move at their own pace.

Many families find themselves attracted to virtual education for the reasons mentioned previously, but lack the technological skills necessary to navigate programs that arise (Huett, Moller, Foshong, & Coleman, 2008). Without sufficient parental support at home, these students lack the support necessary to be successful and may struggle to stay engaged. Although many virtual schools offer to support families by lending out laptops and helping to pay for internet services, if the family lacks the basic technological skills necessary to access the online curriculum then there is little opportunity for their children to do well in an online environment.

Virtual education often requires self-motivation, so students need to be self-directed learners and have family support. Virtual schools, particularly secondary schools, often have a high rate of students who fail to succeed academically and drop out (Podoll & Randle, 2005). Many families turn to virtual education only to find that their student experiences the same or additional hurdles in this setting.

Because of this, it becomes all the more important to ensure that families understand the nature of virtual education in order to determine if online education will provide an environment that will help their students succeed academically. Thus, a greater understanding of why families are drawn to this option may help that process. In particular, families are looking to virtual education as an alternative education option for their at-risk students, yet there is no solid evidence to indicate that such students are any more successful online (Booker & Mitchell, 2011).


To explore the reasons parents select virtual education, we conducted a qualitative, in-depth interview study of the parents or guardians of at-risk high school students that had elected to enroll their child in virtual education. Our goal was to determine their reasons for selecting virtual education, and to discuss their experience since enrolling.

The participants were the parents or guardians of students in 10th, 11th, or 12th grade in a virtual high school. This school is a free public charter school available to any state resident, and serves students across the state. The parents or guardians selected to interview were the self-identified primary decision-making parent (mother, father, or guardian) of high school-age students. Within the network of K12 Inc. schools (the platform purchased by the school) in this state there are two high school options: one school for students on track to graduate, and another for students who are credit-deficient. After discussing the school with the administration, we decided to draw the participants from the school for credit-deficient students, as this best fit the needs of the study.

This was an exploratory qualitative study using in-depth interviews. The study was exploratory because there is little existing research on what influences parents or guardians to select virtual education. A qualitative methodology was selected because we wanted to establish meaning from the views of the participants as they reflected on their experience of selecting virtual education (Creswell, 2007). We felt that such information would not be accessible through a survey or other quantitative methods. Additionally, we did not want to limit the responses to my research questions, and by conducting a qualitative interview study we could approach the interviews through an open-ended question format. It was possible that the responses would reveal themes, ideas, and experiences that we had not anticipated when designing the study.

After conducting the interviews and analyzing the data, the following conclusions will be discussed:

1. The main reasons families selected virtual education had to do with a negative relationship with a former school setting, which involved both academic and social issues for their child.
2. Participants were generally pleased with their experience in virtual education and saw improvement in both academics and social issues for their students.
3. The biggest benefits of virtual education were the flexibility and increased communication.
4. The biggest drawbacks were feelings of isolation and difficulty of staying organized.

Conclusion 1: The main reason families selected virtual education was due to a negative relatonship with a former school setting, which involved both academic and social issues for their child.

All eight participants referenced a negative experience in a former educational setting. Many referenced multiple negative experiences in many different areas. Negative prior experience was by far the most commonly-occurring reference throughout the interviews, with a total of 26 references. However, the reasons for dissatisfaction with past educational experiences varied between participants. This negative relationship was often referred to when reflecting back on the decision to enroll in virtual education. Many of these negative relationships dealt with students’ special needs or special education services, which will be further discussed later on.

When considering the first research question regarding what influences families to enroll in virtual education, special needs seems to be one main reason families choose virtual education, and is one thing they seem to be more satisfied with after enrolling in virtual education. This reflects past findings such as Prosser’s (2011), which found that parents left traditional school settings because they felt that these settings were not meeting the needs of their students and because the social climate was not conducive to their child’s success. Erb (2004) found the same results, stating that the “push” factors from the former setting (dissatisfaction with the school and staff) outweighed the “pull” factors of potential benefits of virtual education in families that made the decision to enroll in virtual schooling.

Six of the participants referenced that their children’s academic needs, whether they received special services or simply had different learning needs, were not being met in their former setting, with one participant stating that the child’s needs were somewhat being met. This generated many of the references to negative relationships with the former school setting. The variety of needs in the virtual student population had also been noted in the literature, as Huett, Moller, Roshay, and Coleman (2008) and Waters (2011) each described virtual education as having a far more diverse student population with a far greater variety of learning styles than traditional schooling.

Families referenced a number of reasons for selecting virtual education. This is consistent with research that has found certain features of virtual education attractive to families: flexible scheduling, the ability to move at the student’s own pace, the removal from the “mainstream” socialization of schooling, and the ability for a family to geographically relocate without interrupting schooling (Davis & Niederhauser, 2007). However, upon analyzing the reasons given by participants in this study, academic and social issues were found to be the two predominant themes. These were the two areas that families struggled with in their former setting, and the two areas that they felt were most improved upon when reflecting on their experience in virtual education.

Academics and social issues were often intertwined in the interviews. Many families cited social issues as interfering with academic success in the former school setting and that students improved in virtual education academically because of removal from their peers. Social issues with peers were often described as distracting. Families hoped that virtual education would allow their child to be successful in gaining credits and graduating. They also hoped that their children would gain academic as well as other skills such as organization, self-discipline, motivation, and confidence. In a study of digital interfaces that support student success, Franklin (2011) also found that families felt that alternative options empowered students to take control of their own learning through such life skills.

With regards to social issues, bullying and “drama” were the most common complaints about negative experiences in former schools. Participants reported seeing a marked improvement in their children’s mental health (no longer depressed or suicidal) as a result as a removal from the traditional school social environment. This is also consistent with the literature that found that mental health and safety concerns (such as bullying) were a major factor in families’ decisions to enroll in virtual education (Erb, 2004).

Conclusion 2: Participants were generally pleased with their experience in virtual education, and saw improvement in both academics and social issues for their students.

When the participants reflected on virtual education now that they had experienced it, all eight participants had positive reflections. All of them were pleased with the decision, although they did have some ideas about how it could be improved. This parental satisfaction reflects what is seen in the literature surrounding school choice. For example, the school that was used in this study is not necessarily academically stronger than the traditional schools that the students had attended previously, which was similar to what was seen in other studies of school choice programs in which parents were not necessarily drawn to academically stronger schools, but were more attracted to convenience (Nathanson, Corcoran, & Baker-Smith, 2013). The high level of satisfaction the participants expressed with their choice to enroll in virtual education is not atypical according to previous studies on school choice (Grady, Bielick, & Aud, 2010), especially when considering that many families involved their student in their choice to enroll in virtual education (Teske, Fitzpatrick, & Kaplan, 2007).

Conclusion 3: The greatest benefits of virtual education were flexibility and increased communication.

When reflecting on their virtual education experience, all of the participants felt that their student was more successful in the virtual setting. An interesting note was that frequently the format of the education was cited as being the most useful aspect of online education. In other words, the flexibility of the schedule, the ability to work at one’s own pace, the physical removal from peers, etc., were cited more frequently than the curriculum and teaching as benefits of virtual education. The online curriculum and the difficulty of changing it to fit students with special needs was mentioned as a drawback (due to the fact that the curriculum is pre-created by an outside company and cannot be changed by the school), but was clearly not enough to cause families to feel that virtual education was a lesser choice for their child. Some participants did express that their they and their children were happier with the online curriculum than with their former school curriculum, and that it was more interesting for their child; but that it was more often the flexibility of the platform that was appealing.

In the literature communication from teachers in virtual education settings was found to be a major indicator of virtual student success (Liminou & Cavanaugh, 201l; Limniou & Smith, 2010). Communication was especially found to be a factor for at-risk students’ academic success (Baubour, 2011; Booker & Mitchell, 2011; Currie, 2010). With this in mind, it stands to reason that parents would feel this increased communication was a major support for their children. The communication was also tied to the format of virtual education, as participants reported teachers were more proactive about emailing, answering concerns, and calling in the virtual environment.

Conclusion 4: The biggest drawbacks of online education were feelings of isolation and difficulty staying organized.

The largest drawback of online education reported by the parents interviewed was the feeling of isolation, which was noted by Participants B, F, G and H. Participants A and E mentioned that a lack of face-to-face interaction with teachers made it difficult to clarify difficult concepts, especially in math. This is also seen in the literature. Reid, Aqui and Putney (2009), Limniou and Smith (2010), and Shoaf (2007) noted that isolation and limited social engagements created hurdles for success for virtual students. This is interesting because this isolation from peers was noted as a benefit in previous responses, yet was still referred to as a drawback of online education.

Implications of this Study

The findings for this study will directly affect us as a virtual high school administrators. The majority of the students enrolled in our school are credit-deficient, and have had a previous academic experience where they were unsuccessful. While we do communicate with families a great deal, we do not always know what made them decide to enroll their student in virtual education or have a detailed history of their past educational experiences.

Based on this limited sample, we can begin to see trends in why families choose virtual education and what have been major concerns in the past. We do see that academics are a major concern for students, since a number of them continue to struggle, and social issues are something that are regularly discussed with our students, including the problems they have had in the past.
From an administrator’s perspective, this information helps us consider what social supports and resources we have in place for students, especially since at some point they may return to a traditional school environment or the workforce. We feel that virtual schools need to do some work to ensure that students have the social skills they need to be successful. Also the number of references to the lack of communication in former settings (which led to enrolling in virtual education for some participants) indicates that this needs to be a consideration for virtual educators, in order to increase communication to support student success.

Recommendations for Future Research

As virtual education grows and evolves, the implications for future research are almost endless. The gap in the literature regarding family selection of and experience with virtual education was among the reasons that we opted to conduct this study. This is especially important considering the wide spectrum of needs in the virtual education student population. We believe that the best way to address those needs is by understanding why families enroll and what they experience.

This study looked only at high school students and their families. The reasons for enrollment in online schools and the experiences with it may vary in elementary and secondary student families. Additionally, the students in this sample were credit-deficient and at-risk of not graduating, which may tie into their negative experiences with former schools and thus color their experience of online education. Researching the same questions with TAG or “average” students may provide different results. Speaking with students directly would likely provide for different information as well.

In conclusion, virtual education is still fairly new and learning about how to best meet the needs of its diverse students should be of paramount concern for teachers and administrators in these schools. Without accurate information about the students we serve, these credit-deficient students run the risk of being unsuccessful in yet another school setting and not graduating.

While this is a limited study, the recurring themes in the responses do point to some areas that the participants shared in their experiences both in their past settings and in virtual education. This is an excellent starting point from which to begin to better serve the needs of these families.


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