If the idea of cyber schools seems futuristic, consider this fact: around 200,000 American students attend school full-time online. Most of these kids are attending what's known as cyber, or virtual, charter schools. These schools exist in 27 states and Washington, D.C., according to the most recent national Keeping Pace report. Kids who learn through cyber charter schools need little more than a computer, an Internet connection and a residence in the same state as the school. And since these schools are public, the school usually provides the computer and helps pay for Internet access. "Essentially, it's public schooling at home," says Matt Arkin, head of Georgia Cyber Academy, which serves more than 4,000 kids statewide. "Our students are held to all public school standards."

How does it work?

Like traditional schools – called "brick-and-mortar schools" in the virtual world – cyber charters serve children from kindergarten all the way through high school. They require the same core classes taught in public schools, like English, science and even physical education. Since virtual charter schools are public, their students are required to take the same state assessment tests as children in brick-and-mortar public schools. Students connect with their teachers and with each other online through interactive software. Some classes take place at specific times, while others are self-paced so students can work them into their own schedules.

The biggest difference between virtual and traditional schools is that cyber charter students learn at their own pace, since they're not assigned to a classroom with a bunch of other kids. A fourth grader might take fourth-grade English classes and third grade math, for example. As in traditional schools, students can pick more of their own classes as they get older, choosing from subjects like epidemiology, British literature and graphic design.

What about interaction with teachers and peers? Arkins says students aren't entirely on their own just because they don't hop on a school bus every day. At PA Cyber, kids interact with their teachers and an instructional supervisor who is sort of like a guidance counselor. "We actually surround the students with as many one-to-one interactions as we can," says Andy Petro, supervisor of virtual classroom technology for PA Cyber, which has more than 8,000 students across Pennsylvania.

Jeff Kwitowski, spokesman for online learning company K12, says, in addition, some virtual charters are developing programs where students can take classes online but also get in-person instruction at learning centers. 

Who are cyber charter students?

Ask a virtual charter school administrator to describe her average student, and she'll have a hard time answering. "Our school would be a cross section of any other public school district in the state or in the country," Petro says. He and Arkin say their schools draw all sorts of students. Some are Olympic-caliber athletes or professional actors and actresses. Some are teenage parents who want to continue their education while raising their children. Some travel a lot with their families. Some kids take more advanced classes than their peers, and others have special needs. Others have fallen behind in traditional classes and are catching up in a virtual school before transferring back to a brick-and-mortar school. Arkin says about half the students at Georgia Cyber have low incomes.

The right fit for your child?

Since cyber charters are public schools, they can't turn kids away. That means they're used to serving all kinds of children. "We believe that every student can be successful in this program," Arkin says. "But in some cases, it's more of a challenge." Virtual education isn't going to work unless the student, parent or both is committed to making it work, he says. Georgia Cyber refers to "learning coaches," which are usually students' parents but could also be grandparents or guardians. Because virtual education is so individualized, Arkin says, it works best when a child's learning coach takes an active role. And the nature of virtual schools means students must be able to motivate themselves and work independently.

Even though students take their classes online, PA Cyber interviews all prospective students and parents in person, Petro says. The point of these interviews is to help parents determine whether the cyber charter school is the right choice for their children. If a child has attendance problems at a brick-and-mortar school or comes to the interview hating the idea of online education, a virtual school is probably not the best idea. With thousands of students taking classes online, Kwitowski says it's easy for parents and students to find other families using cyber charters. Meet-and-greets take place online and in person. "These are ultimately schools of choice," Kwitowski says.