K12 Inc. Ramps Up Focus on Virtual Career-Tech Education

Managing Editor

K12 Inc., the major for-profit provider of online education, is making a big expansion where it says there is strong demand from schools–and employers: career-and-technical studies.

The Herndon, Va.-based company has announced it is launching the Destinations Career Academy of Wisconsin, expected to enroll high school students beginning this fall.

Additionally, the company says it will open two more online schools with a career-and-technical focus in other parts of the country soon. And more growth in career-themed education is likely to come in the years ahead, said Lynda Cloud, K12’s executive vice president for products and technology.

“We really needed to do this because our economy needs it, our businesses need it, and our kids need it,” Cloud said in an interview. Interest from students so far, she said, has been “overwhelming.”

K12 says it is offering career-oriented courses in four “clusters”: architecture and construction; business management and administration; health science; and information technology.

Teachers licensed by the state of Wisconsin will lead the courses, and students who graduate will receive a high school diploma.

The school has also partnered with the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139, a Wisconsin trade union that mostly represents heavy equipment operators working in the construction industry, and Fox Valley Technical College.

“This revolutionary new school helps meet our state’s critical workforce needs,” Terry McGowan, the president of the operating engineers, said in a statement. The Wisconsin school, he predicted, will give students the preparation they need “to access the many available technical and high-paying jobs that help our state grow.”

K12 worked with the union and the college to develop an academic pathway in construction. The “pre-apprenticeship” program will be directed by the operating engineers, and it will seek to give students hands-on experience to joining jobs in that field.

Fox Valley Technical College will provide students with opportunities to take dual-credit, tech-prep courses that combine computer-based and in-person teaching.

In addition to launching the new school, K12 offers an extensive number of individual courses focused on career-and-technical education separately through Fuel Education, a division of the company that provides courses and curriculum.

K12 has drawn sharp criticism over the years from those who question the quality of its programs, and accuse it pushing too hard for profit, mostly by aggressively recruiting students who may not be well-suited to online studies to enroll. The company has said its online programs help students who have struggled academically or socially in traditional brick-and-mortar settings, and that the virtual approach gives students and families the flexibility and customized lessons they need.

One of the central arguments that critics make of online education, including K12’s programs, is that the online experience cannot match the traditional teacher-to-student interactions found in many classrooms. It’s difficult to keep those students on-track, detractors say, and too few online programs put forth the effort.

Cloud says that there will be requirements in its Wisconsin program for students to have training with local program partners on job sites, and in person with professionals, with the amount of those requirements varying by the course.

K12’s approach is not “one-size-fits all,” she said. Nurses-in-training, for instance, would have extensive practice working directly with patients. Other practical, job-site experience will be tailored to industry demands, Cloud said.

The Destinations Career Academy will operate as charter school that is authorized by the McFarland School District, which is located in the Madison, Wisconsin area.

Correction: This post originally misstated the membership of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139, which represents primarily heavy-equipment operators in the construction trades.

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