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Virtual charter school graduates first class

by Dave Perozek | June 1, 2020 at 1:00 a.m.
Katy Didion of Rogers celebrates her graduation from Arkansas Connections Academy with Principal Darla Gardner (left) and family members in a ceremony held for her at the school's office in Bentonville in May. This is the year of the school's first graduating class. (Courtesy Photo/Kevin Vines)

BENTONVILLE -- Louis Plaisance needed a lot of time outside school to pursue his passion for fencing, so he transferred from West High School to Arkansas Connections Academy to start his junior year.

"I could take my computer with me whenever I needed to do school," said Plaisance, 18, of Centerton. "It was really easy to keep on track and stay motivated. It also gave me time to work and live on my own schedule, instead of the normal public school schedule."

About the school

Arkansas Connections Academy is one of two virtual, open-enrollment charter schools in the state. Both are public and tuition-free. 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.

Source: NWA Democrat-Gazette

Plaisance is one of 188 teens who make up the virtual charter school's first graduating class this spring.

Arkansas Connections Academy opened in 2016 with about 230 students in grades kindergarten through nine, said Assistant Principal Nicole Stephens.

The school added a grade level each year. It now has more than 1,900 students. Several hundred more are expected next school year, Stephens said.

The school is based in Bentonville, but because it's virtual, students and teachers are spread across Arkansas. Students come from each of the state's 75 counties. All teachers are certified by the state of Arkansas and live either in the state or just outside it, according to Stephens.

The school was excited about its first senior class and had big plans for an in-person graduation in Little Rock this month. The covid-19 pandemic derailed the celebration.

Administrators started planning a virtual ceremony instead, which was broadcast Sunday via the Zoom videoconference application. Each senior will be showcased.

Administrators also gave students an opportunity for a mini ceremony of their own if they wanted to pick up their diploma at the office. Thirty-six seniors took advantage of the opportunity, Stephens said.

Students signed up for 30-minute time slots May 16-18 and arrived in their caps and gowns along with up to five family members. Principal Darla Gardner gave a speech at each gathering. Social distancing guidelines were observed, Stephens said.

Plaisance, who is nationally ranked by the U.S. Fencing Association, regularly travels to Oklahoma City to practice his sport. He travels elsewhere, such as Dallas and St. Louis, for competitions. He plans to go on a mission program for a year before heading to college, he said.

Luke Garcia, 17, of Bentonville is a senior who joined the school in its inaugural year as a freshman. He was homeschooled before that. Among his classmates were two of his cousins, who live in south Arkansas.

His family likes to travel, so the flexibility of an online school appealed to them, he said. He started taking information technology courses sponsored by Google in February, which he said he wouldn't have had time for if he had been enrolled in a traditional school.

Garcia likes the school.

"It depends on the person," he said. "But, if you have a busy lifestyle or like to travel, I would recommend it."

He probably will go to Northwest Arkansas Community College this fall, he said.

Matthew Naylor, another graduating senior, came to the school as a sophomore after one year at Haas Hall Academy, where he got involved with a robotics team -- Team 5006. He remained with the team even though he switched schools; it's not strictly affiliated with Haas Hall, he said.

Team 5006 went to the FIRST world championship event each of his first three years of high school, finishing second in 2018. This year's championship event was canceled because of covid-19.

FIRST stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. The organization is known for its robotics competitions for kids. Students design, build and program a robot to compete in a floor game.

Naylor said he never cared for the schedule of a traditional school because he thought much of the classroom time was wasted. He preferred to spend that time on activities that interested him, such as robotics. Connections Academy allowed him that kind of freedom, he said.

Naylor plans to study mechanical engineering at the University of Arkansas.

"I love designing stuff," he said. "I'd like to design and build spacecraft. I also recently got into Formula 1 racing. Designing those cars would be very interesting."

About 52% of the Connections Academy's 188 graduates this year intend to go to two- or four-year colleges or universities. They received about $465,045 in scholarship offers, Stephens said.

NW News on 06/01/2020

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