More schools opening virtual options for students

Some of Northwest Arkansas' largest school districts are investing more in online education platforms because of growing demand from students and their families.

Rogers is preparing to launch a fully online program for students in grades six through 12 this fall. Bentonville is doing the same for grades five through 12.

In Springdale, 140 students last year participated in the district's virtual program, an increase from past years. The Fayetteville School District launched a virtual charter school in 2016.

The Fayetteville Virtual Academy had about 220 students in grades four through 12 this spring and expects 250 for the fall semester. About 30% of the school's students come from outside the Fayetteville School District, said Principal Kim Cook. The district earlier this year sent postcards advertising the Virtual Academy to 39,000 families with school-age children in Benton and Washington counties.

There's no single reason students are attracted to the school.

"If we have 250 students at this school, we have 250 reasons they're here," said Cara Rathbone, who teaches high school math at the Fayetteville Virtual Academy.

Cook said some students have health issues making it hard for them to attend a traditional school. Some have suffered from bullying. Some travel frequently because they are serious athletes, models or actors.

"We'll have a family next year who are backpacking through Europe," Cook said.

Virtual education comes in different forms. Students enrolled in traditional, brick-and-mortar schools may take individual courses online. "Blended" programs combine face-to-face and online activities. Some schools are entirely online, and a parent may assist in guiding the student.

Fayetteville Virtual Academy is a blended model. Students can visit their teachers in person at the academy's building in addition to teleconferencing with them. The school offers field trips and, for older students, help finding an internship in a particular career field.

Eloise Brown transferred from Fayetteville High School to the Virtual Academy before her senior year and graduated last month. She's headed to John Brown University in Siloam Springs this fall.

Brown was attracted to the virtual school because it offered her flexibility to work a part-time job. She found the course work more challenging and said her Virtual Academy teachers pushed her harder.

"Virtual is amazing," she said.

She acknowledged, however, it may not be the right educational model for everyone.

Ready to launch

The Rogers School Board voted in January to move forward with an online program in conjunction with Red Comet, an organization offering online courses for credit and is authorized by the Arkansas Department of Education. Courses will be taught by teachers accredited by the state.

Officials think the program will be attractive to families that otherwise would home-school their children. There were 720 home-schooled children living in the Rogers district in the 2016-17 school year, according to the latest state figures.

The district would receive the same amount of money from the state for each child enrolled in the online program as it would for any other student enrolled in the schools. That figure is $6,899 per student for the 2019-20 school year. About a quarter of that will go to Red Comet, said Charles Lee, assistant superintendent for general administration.

The board approved a handbook for virtual schooling at its meeting Tuesday. The district will host an information session for families at 6 p.m. July 18 at its administration building. Students may enroll starting July 15, Lee said.

"There is a tremendous amount of interest in the program," he said. "I've received numerous phone calls from parents who have students who have been home-bound or are home-schooling."

Rogers tested the virtual school system this spring semester with six students. Some of those students were successful and some weren't, Lee said, but added, "We think we've got a plan in place that's going to be beneficial to our patrons and our students."

The Bentonville School Board last month approved the district's 100% Online program, building on a pilot digital program launched in January 2018. The district's high school online course requests nearly tripled in the past year, from 467 to 1,386, according to district officials.

"When we ask [students] what can we do to improve these online classes, the overwhelming response is, we want more of them," said Taylor Bowers, a Bentonville High School English teacher who taught virtual classes this past school year.

The district hosted information sessions on May 30 and June 4. Forty-six families had expressed interest in the program as of June 12, according to Leslee Wright, director of communications. Orientation and scheduling will begin the week of July 22.

Bentonville will charge students $25 per course in the virtual school. Because virtual is an optional format, the district is allowed to charge for it, even though it's a public school, said Jennifer Morrow, director of secondary education. Virtual students will have the same access to school services as any other Bentonville student.

Quality concerns

Some express skepticism about virtual education. Researchers at the National Education Policy Center, housed at the University of Colorado, released a report last month that cited poor performance by the nation's full-time virtual and blended-learning schools overall.

Among their recommendations was that policymakers "slow or stop the growth" in the number of these schools and the size of their enrollments until the reasons for their poor performance have been identified and addressed.

They also note sparse research describing the experience of students enrolled in virtual or blended learning schools and suggest state and federal policymakers should create long-term programs to support independent research on and evaluation of virtual schooling.

"Many argue that online curriculum can be tailored to individual students more effectively than curriculum in traditional classrooms, giving it the potential to promote greater student achievement than can be realized in traditional brick-and-mortar schools. These claims are not supported by the research evidence," according to the report.

Debbie Jones, Bentonville's superintendent, said she wanted to cautiously explore a virtual school when she started her job three years ago.

Jones sat on the state's Charter Authorizing Panel when she worked at the Arkansas Department of Education. The experience gave her a firsthand look at the good and the bad of virtual programs.

"There has to be a real and regular connection between the teacher and the student," Jones said. "It cannot simply be curriculum you purchase and everything is automated. There has to be a teacher who knows the student on the other end of that computer."

Frequent, immediate feedback for students is critical, she said. Bentonville's program will require a certain level of intervention if a student's grade in a class dips below 70%. Students will have to check benchmarks as they complete courses; they won't be able to breeze through a course in one week, Jones said.

Jones said the proliferation of online programs has not put pressure on her to establish one for Bentonville. It's knowing some students need the flexibility virtual school provides that has driven the initiative.

"The stories are all different, but they have legitimate reasons. So if I felt any pressure, it's to meet the needs of our community," she said.

Statewide charters

Meanwhile, two other open-enrollment, online charter schools -- Arkansas Virtual Academy and Arkansas Connections Academy -- are attracting an increasing number of students. Both are public and tuition-free.

Connections Academy operates in numerous other states. The Bentonville-based Arkansas Connections Academy opened in 2016 with a few hundred students. The school reported enrollment of 1,236 last fall.

Students learn through a combination of online and offline study and attend virtual classroom sessions, where a teacher provides lessons. Students may participate in clubs and field trips.

The Little Rock-based Arkansas Virtual Academy has been a charter school since 2007, when it had about 500 students. The school is expecting between 2,600 to 2,800 students this fall, said Amy Johnson, head of school.

The state in 2017 approved raising the school's enrollment cap from 2,000 to 3,000. The school is building to that number in phases over three years. About 700 of the school's students live in Northwest Arkansas, according to Johnson.

Arkansas Virtual Academy contracts with K12, a Virginia-based firm providing a curriculum as well as tech support and some administrative services to virtual schools across the country. The academy has its own staff and board of directors.

"We run very much like a typical brick-and-mortar school would. It's just that K-12 is our main curriculum provider," Johnson said.

The school's biggest challenge -- something every virtual school wrestles with -- is ensuring teachers build solid relationships with the students, she said.

To help with that, the school this year will assign a "student champion" to each student; that is, a staff member who will be the go-to person for help with any problems or questions the student may have, Johnson said.

"We also ask our teachers to reach out and chat with students about what's going on in their lives, not just about grades, but to make strong connections with who they really are," she said.

The school had 169 graduates this year. Kayla Reagan-Sage, the class valedictorian, joined Arkansas Virtual at the beginning of her sophomore year after having a baby when she was 15.

Reagan-Sage, 18, said she had a blood clot in her leg while she was pregnant that required her to get two shots a day. Her home public school in Nashville offered to put her in the alternative learning environment to accommodate her, but she didn't want to go there, she said.

That's when she turned to Arkansas Virtual, where everyone supported her, she said. She took Advanced Placement and honors courses. The curriculum was "way better" than what she had experienced at her previous public school, she said.

"It wasn't easier; it was better. It was more educational," she said.

Reagan-Sage plans to take a year off to work and hopes to attend Texas A&M University next year, possibly to study computer science.

U.S. virtual students

There were 501 full-time virtual schools in the United States that enrolled 297,712 students during the 2017-18 school year, an increase of more than 2,000 students from the previous year. There were 300 blended schools that enrolled 132,960 students in 2017-18, an increase of more than 16,000 from the previous year. Blended schools offer a mix of online education and face-to-face activities with teachers and other students, according to Virtual School in the U.S. 2019, a report of the National Education Policy Center.

Source: Staff report

NW News on 06/23/2019