Families searching for the best school for their children are no longer limited by geography. Public online schools are gaining popularity around the state, accepting families regardless of the district they live in.

Oregon Connections Academy, established in 2005, has attracted about 10 students from Ashland and 75 from the Rogue Valley. A second group of online Web academies, based in Sisters, Estacada and Marcola, launches this fall, with 200 to 400 students each from around Oregon.

Families whose children attend Connections Academy say it is an attractive alternative to home schooling. The programs are free and provide a complete curriculum and professional teacher support.

Polly Farrimond enrolled her daughter, now 12, in the academy when it first opened because she was reading above grade level and not being challenged in public school. Her younger daughter, who will be in first grade, is already doing second grade math.

"This allows you to work at your own pace," she said. The school also helps students who need extra support and individualized education programs.

Although she doesn't have to come up with the curriculum, the program allows the family to travel easily and supplement their studies. The family visited the Lewis and Clark Trail to learn about Oregon history and traveled to Washington, D.C., for an in-depth study of U.S. history. This September, they plan to drive across the country together.

"We're going to be gone for a while, but we'll still be connected," she said.

Kindergarten students in the program must spend two-and-a-half hours a day doing coursework, on up to five-and-a-half hours for high school students. They meet face-to-face or chat over the phone with a teacher every other week and communicate via e-mail nearly every day.

Web Academy students are required to work at least 20 hours per week, and like the Connections Academy, the school hosts field trips and enrichment classes that allow students to meet each other.

"What you want to do is develop a sense of community," said Tim King, an employee of Ed Choices and the director of the Web academies. "You develop field trips and enrichment classes that allow the students to get together."

Laura Dillon, an elementary teacher with Connections Academy, said the most common reason for choosing an online program is parents want to be involved but don't feel fully equipped for home schooling. Families who travel often or want greater flexibility are also common candidates.

Families who already home school are often attracted to the program.

"I think it's easy home schooling, because the curriculum is handed to you. There's an outside teacher so kids are more motivated to perform," said Wendy Shumway, who has home schooled six children. Her son, Tanner, 12, will be the first to try the Connections Academy.

The program doesn't work for everyone, however. It has an average return rate of 68 percent. Often, students must leave because their parent must go back to work and is no longer able to serve as the required learning coach.

Superintendent Juli Di Chiro said she does not anticipate losing many students from the Ashland School District to online programs.

"It is the rare high school kid who can work in an online environment 100 percent of the time," she said.

The district tries to provide as many options as possible for students who don't learn well in a traditional environment, Di Chiro said.

High school students can take classes in the Wilderness Charter School or be placed in alternative programs focusing on the development of western civilization or social and environmental justice. Willow Wind offers full-time and home school support programs from kindergarten through high school, and the district is investigating the possibility of an alternative program at the middle school.

Staff writer can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227 or .