Tennis hopeful Jamie Hunt, 16, felt he could not become a world-class junior player while attending a regular school. The international circuit has players on the road 50% of the time and it's hard to focus on your backhand when you're worrying about being on time for homeroom. So in 2003 Hunt, who hones his ground strokes at Elite TNT Tennis Academy in April Sound, Texas, enrolled for academics in the $9,750-a-year University of Miami Online High School (UMOHS), a virtual school that caters to athletes. "The online school gives me the flexibility I need," says Hunt. "The workload is the same, but I can do it anywhere. It's nicer to ask a question face-to-face with a teacher, but in some ways it prepares me better for college because I have to be more independent." A year ago, Hunt's world junior ranking was 886; now it's 110.
Virtual high schools, which allow students to take classes via PC, have emerged as an increasingly popular education alternative, particularly for on-the-go athletes. umohs has more than 400 students enrolled, 65% of whom are athletes. Accredited by the 100-year-old Southern Association of Colleges and Schools [an error occurred while processing this directive]in Decatur, Georgia, UMOHS offers honors and advanced-placement classes. All course material is online, along with assignments and due dates. For help, says principal Howard Liebman, "a student may e-mail, instant message or call the teacher."
Dallas mom Lori Bannon turned to another online school, Laurel Springs in Ojai, California. Bannon, who has a Harvard medical degree, didn't want to compromise the education of her daughter Lindsay, 13, an élite gymnast who spends eight hours a day in the gym. "Regular school was not an option," says Bannon, "but I wanted to make sure she could go back at grade level if she quit gymnastics." Laurel Springs' enrollment has increased 35% a year for the past four years, to 1,800 students. At least 25% are either athletes or child entertainers.
Educators are split on the merits of such schools. Paul Orehovec, an enrollment officer for the University of Miami, admits, "I was somewhat of a skeptic. But when I looked into their programs and accreditation, I was excited. umohs is the first online school to be granted membership in the National Honor Society." Kevin Roy, Elite's director of education, sees pitfalls and potential in virtual schools. "You will never have that wonderful teacher who inspires you for life," says Roy. "But the virtual school offers endless possibilities. I don't know where education's imagination will take this."