Thousands of North Carolina public school students will spend their first day of class, Aug. 24, at home with parents, logging onto computers to show they’re “present” and ready to learn.
The opening of two public online charter schools, N.C. Virtual Academy and N.C. Connections Academy, makes this year in public education like none other in state history.
Both schools have spent the summer hiring teachers, signing up students, and preparing parents for enhanced roles in education. All classes have teachers, but learning coaches, usually parents, are required to work with students at home.
“They have a vital role in what we do,” said Nathan Currie, N.C. Connections Academy principal. Computer time for the youngest students is minimal – it’s the parents who are responsible for guiding children through lessons. As students reach high school, the need for hands-on parent involvement is reduced.
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Enrollment at each school is capped this year at 1,500 students, and each school’s leader said they are close to hitting the student limit.
The schools are opening in the state after years of resistance from state education officials who questioned the quality of online charters. The legislature intervened to require the State Board of Education approve two online charter schools for four-year pilot projects. The State Board of Education has vowed to keep close watch of their progress after persistent questions about the quality of online education in some states.
“Our focus is every child, every class, every day,” said Joel Medley, N.C. Virtual Academy’s head of school. “If we do that, we’ll be successful.”
K12, an online education company based in Virginia, manages and provides curriculum for Virtual Academy, while the international education giant Pearson does the same for the Connections Academy.
Connections Academy opens as a K-9 school; Virtual Academy as a K-10. Both plan to add grades and increase enrollments in subsequent years. The schools ship books, lab supplies and other equipment to students’ homes. Virtual Academy will also lend computers and other needed equipment to families who meet income guidelines.
While Virtual Academy teachers will work from their homes, Connections Academy teachers will begin the school year working from the school’s southern Durham office. Having teachers in the same place, initially at least, is important to building the culture of the school, said Currie. Some of the schools teachers have experience as online teachers, some received degrees online, and some come from traditional brick-and-mortar schools, he said.
“When we come together, we’re truly going to be learning from each other,” he said.
The schools will have clubs where students can meet in person and online. Field trips are open to all and are planned to allow those who live in distant counties to take part. The school realizes social development is important, he said. “We provide those online activities both online and face-to-face to really grow that, “ he said.
By law, the schools must be open to special needs students. Medley said Virtual Academy had 1,470 students enrolled as of Friday and a waiting list of students for grade levels that have hit their limits. Students from 91 counties are enrolled; 60 percent came from other public schools, 30 percent were home schooled, and the rest came from private schools or are just starting school.
Connections – with a per-pupil cost of $5,315, not counting federal funding – has 1,404 students enrolled; all 100 counties are represented. The school, which said core-content teachers will make $39, 530, continues to host information sessions. One is scheduled for Morrisville on Monday, and another for Chapel Hill on Wednesday.
Parents like online schools’ flexibility, Currie said. Students who travel for sports or other activities “can log into school wherever they are,” he said. “A lot of families really love that part.”
Jennifer Ratcliff recently moved to Winston-Salem from South Carolina, where she had her 6-year-old daughter, Rebekah, was enrolled South Carolina Connections Academy. Rebekah will start class in N.C. Connections Academy this month. Ratcliff said the family moves frequently for her husband’s job, and online school makes transitions easier for her daughter.
The daily schedule is easier because Rebekah doesn’t have to get up before sunrise to prepare for a bus ride to school, Ratcliff said, and her daughter doesn’t have to miss school when she’s sick. Ratcliff, who teaches religion, said the online school lets her be “more of an active part” of her daughter’s education, and to supplement the public school curriculum with Christian education.
Ratcliff home-schooled her daughter in kindergarten, and had to search for the best curriculum and pay for materials. With the online charter, she gets all she needs, and does not have to maintain attendance and grade records.
“Between the student, myself and the teacher, we are ensuring that she has that education and that success,” Ratcliff said. “She’s getting a regular public school education.”