On Monday, students from North Carolina Virtual Academy will do something never before attempted in the state: begin and end their first day of school by logging on to their computers at home. NC Virtual Academy is one of two newly approved online schools that will launch this year following a state law creating a four-year online charter school pilot program.
Full-time online schools are public schools where students receive their courses and participate in teacher-led instruction online and outside traditional classrooms. North Carolina joins 30 other states with full-time online public schools. These innovative public school options have existed since 2001 and now serve 316,320 students nationwide, according to the Keeping Pace with K-12 Digital Learning report. Although enrollment in online schools is increasing every year, the number of students attending these schools is very small compared with the overall public school population.
Like most new education reforms, online schools have supporters and critics. Some believe these schools are unproven, while others say the virtual school model is not appropriate for elementary and secondary students. Supporters point to the fact that every child is unique and has different learning styles and needs. Online charter schools give families a choice regardless of geographic location, academic or socioeconomic circumstance. Some students who are not succeeding in traditional schools can benefit from the flexibility and individualized learning online schools provide.
I watched these debates up close when I served as the director of the N.C. Office of Charter Schools. I heard arguments from well-intentioned people on both sides. I watched members of the State Board of Education, tasked with authorizing the online charter schools, carefully examine the school applications over many months to ensure quality and efficacy. I listened to the testimony of parents and children who were eagerly hoping for this public school option.
I am convinced that online schools have great potential in North Carolina. As a life-long educator, I also felt a deep desire to get back into schools working with teachers to help students learn. A few months after NC Virtual Academy was approved, I applied and was accepted for the position of head of school. Since then, our school has assembled a tremendous team of talented teachers and school leaders.
Our guiding principle at NC Virtual Academy is to teach to the individual, not the group. The 1,500 students we serve come from all across the state, all with their own story: accelerated learners, students with disabilities or other special needs, victims of bullying, student-athletes, military families and others. At our school, each student receives an individualized learning plan. Students are not pressured to move faster or slower than their peers; they can move at their own pace. Through innovative technology, teachers provide direct instruction, guidance and support in close partnership with parents or other learning coaches.
Piloting a new public school that is vastly different from any other North Carolina school is no small feat. We expect to have highs and lows, good days and bad. We will learn from our mistakes and build on our successes. The focus of our team is simple: every child, every class, every day. If we do those things, at the end of the four-year pilot, we will have succeeded and done well by the families that chose us by making a difference in their children’s lives. Our pledge to the state is that NC Virtual Academy will be a school of integrity – open, honest, accountable to all, and fully committed to student success.
Joel Medley, former director of the N.C. Office of Charter Schools, is head of school at North Carolina Virtual Academy.