WHEATFIELD — On his computer, A.J. Besson shot at germs and sliced fruit.

"I can't do this, it's so hard," the 8-year-old said.

"You're earning a lot of coins, so keep going," said his mom, Candida York.

A.J. wasn't just playing a video game; he was learning about math along the way.

Also, he was in his living room, which serves as his classroom.

A.J. has some neurological and behavioral issues that made it difficult to go to school, York said. 

So A.J. went to second grade online — from the comfort of home.

York, 46, said A.J. has been doing better — his seizures, which she believes were stress-induced, have lessened — and she credits his new learning environment.

"It saved my family and saved his life," York said.

A.J.'s institution, the Indiana Digital Learning School, is based at Union School Corp. in Modoc, a small town in eastern Indiana. Teachers work from home, using a camera and headset to communicate with the students through the computer.

The school is operated in partnership with K12, a for-profit corporation headquartered in Virginia.

Virtual schools are a small but growing part of the education system. In 2015, 278,511 American kids took their classes online, according to the National Education Policy Center. Indiana only had about 2,000 students enrolled in virtual or blended schools in 2015-2016. Less than 1.5 percent of students in the state get their education through the internet.

Some education experts and politicians have been critical of digital schools because of their poorer-than-average academic performance. The State Board of Education recently formed a committee to determine whether virtual charter schools should be more closely regulated (Indiana Digital Learning School, however, is considered a district school.) Even so, parents like York consider the online option a blessing.

A.J. was born premature, his mom said, with severe brain deficiencies.

He would have seizures in school, she said. She worried about his safety. She believes they may have been caused in the part by the stress of bullying he endured as a result of his disabilities.

"Unfortunately one of the most common types of students we serve here are those who have experienced some form of bullying," said Elizabeth Sliger, head of school for Indiana Digital Learning School.

She said about 40 percent of the school's 740 students choose the online path because they were bullied. Other reasons students attend the school include having health issues or special needs, being academically gifted, or pursuing a profession, such as tennis or acting, that benefits from a flexible education schedule.

A.J. has scars on both temples, his mom said, from falling after having seizures. "This was from school," he said, pointing at one. "I don't remember it."

However, she didn't want to home-school him (she stays home because she is disabled from an accident). She wanted him to still be in public school.

She did a Google search and came across the Indiana Digital Learning School. She thought it would be a great fit.

York said her son is already working ahead: He finished second grade and is already part way through third. He is learning Spanish.

"I will not put him full time in a brick-and-mortar school," she said. "He excelled and exceeded everyone's expectation.

"That's my genius I call him."

Nearby, A.J. ate a green popsicle and watched videos on a smartphone. Moments later, he brought out Zeus the bearded dragon to play with. When asked, A.J. said he likes going to school online, but not necessarily better than a regular school.

The classes are about four hours a day, with about two hours of independent learning recommended. The kids can communicate with one another through a chat feature. A.J. is free to move around during class; sometimes he jumps on the trampoline in his living room if he gets anxious.

The school pays a stipend for the family's internet and provided the computer, printer and art supplies. A.J. is also considered a "dual" student, so he can participate in extracurricular activities at local public schools (A.J. plays baseball).

On the recent day at their home in Wheatfield, a Jasper County town of 844 people, the family's walls resembled a classroom, covered with maps and lists of adverbs and adjectives. A couple of A.J.'s honor roll certificates adorn a wall, as did a whiteboard with words for A.J. to practice writing.

"Here he can grow as a person and he can grow academically," York said. "He can grow at his pace."


Health Reporter

Giles is the health reporter for The Times, covering the business of health care as well as consumer and public health. He previously wrote about health for the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World. He is a graduate of Northern Illinois University.