'Virtual Schools' gaining in size, popularity

Tomorrow's schools today


By Raymond L. Daye
School has changed a lot in the past few decades as computers have become more and more important in the instruction process.
Not only has modern technology made typing class obsolete, retired the ditto machine and overhead projector and put the slide rule on the endangered species list, it is trying to eliminate the school building itself.
There are two online “virtual academies” advertising for students in Avoyelles Parish. Both are classified as public charter schools. Even the Avoyelles Parish School District has a form of “virtual academy” -- the alternative school in Hessmer.
The virtual school phenomenon is not a Louisiana condition, but is nationwide. They are touted as being “tomorrow’s schools today.”
The computer-based schools combine the flexibility of home schooling with the accountability of the brick-and-mortar school, complete with certified teachers, state testing, field trips, school clubs and organizations,  proms and graduation ceremonies.
Louisiana Virtual Charter Academy (LAVCA) has administrative offices in Baton Rouge and is affiliated with two brick-and-mortar charter schools in Baton Rouge -- Madison Preparatory for grades 9-12 and Community School for Apprenticeship Learning for grades 6-8. It has 1,915 students in grades K-12.
Louisiana Connections Academy (LACA) is based in Baton Rouge. It has 15 testing sites around the state and has 1,800 students in grades K-12. It will be expanding to 2,100 students in 2015-16.
Superintendent Blaine Dauzat said the virtual schools have not affected Avoyelles Parish schools.
“There are a few students who have gone to those programs, but not many,” he said.
LACA Lead Principal  Glenda Jones said about 20-25 students from Avoyelles Parish are enrolled in that virtual academy. LACA is a public charter school, under the jurisdiction of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
“Our office is in Baton Rouge, but we cover the whole state,” Jones said. “We are stand-alone. We are not part of the East Baton Rouge School  System.”
She said the virtual school “is a school of choice. It is not for everybody, and I tell parents that. We are not promoting it as a replacement for brick-and-mortar schools.”
A virtual school may be a temporary solution to a particular problem at their assigned school, she said. It can be used for a year, and then the student returns to the traditional school environment.
“It is a good option for a child who is homebound due to an injury,” she continued. “When they get well, they can go back to their school.”
The virtual school is good for military families who move a lot, students in an under-performing school district and students who are being bullied at school or suffer from a social anxiety disorder.
“Avoyelles Parish is an area that is in the middle of three testing sites,” she said. “Depending on where they live, they would be closer to Alexandria, Baton Rouge or Lafayette.” The 15 testing centers are important to administer state-mandated tests. 
Since LACA is a statewide charter school, it would not be feasible to require all students to come to one large location for the various state assessment tests during the year. All of those tests, from kindergarten assessment to elementary reading measurements to the state assessment tests are administered.
“All of our teachers are state certified and highly qualified,” Jones said. “We have 80 full-time teachers and several part-time teachers for some elective courses.”
While there is no problem with fitting desks in the virtual classroom, the class size is limited. Jones said high school classes will have no more than 30 students, but the teacher will have six classes. Lower elementary grades may have 30-40 students. Upper elementary classes are divided into subject areas, with a “team teaching” concept that allows more students to be served by the same number of teachers. It also allows a teacher to teach in an area of their strength.  
The school has had no problem with federal desegregation orders in those parishes still under court supervision.
“Charter schools have to enroll the at-risk population of the area they serve,” she said. “We serve the state, and the state has an at-risk population of 66 percent. We are required to hit that mark.”
The school has open enrollment. There are no grade point average requirements, no disqualification based on previous discipline problems.
Funding is provided through the state Minimum Foundation Program -- the same as the public school systems.
“We get 90 percent of the state funding for a student in the area where they live,” Jones said. “The other 10 percent goes to the district where they live.”
When the school started four years ago, most of its students were elementary children. There were only eight graduates that first year. Now, most of those enrolled are in the secondary grades, 7-12. There will be 175 graduates this year.
“In high school, we have dual enrollment courses for college credit, a full line of Advanced Placement courses, career courses and college preparatory courses,” Jones said.
Those graduates will have a live graduation, complete with cap and gown, valedictorian, salutatorian, honor graduates and diplomas. This past year the graduation ceremony was at Southeastern Louisiana University. Juniors have a ring ceremony, which is moved around the state, where the students can receive their senior rings at a banquet.
“We have a prom, of sorts,” Jones said. “We book the Creole Queen  riverboat in New Orleans for a few hours on an afternoon. There’s a dinner, a DJ so the students can dance. They love it. We do as many things as we can for the students.”
LACA does not have a football, basketball or baseball team, but it does boast of having stellar athletes among its students.
“There are several gymnasts in Baton Rouge who are enrolled in our school,” she said. “They have a classroom set up at their training center. Our classes are NCAA-certified, and they are working toward being in college gymnastics, which requires NCAA certification.”
She said the school also has competitive equestrians and students who compete on tennis and golf circuits.
“Our school is more flexible. They can access their classes by laptop anywhere in the country,” Jones said. “It works for them.”
Jones said LACA takes special efforts not to be a “Baton Rouge-area” school. 
“Every month, we have at least one field trip in every area of the state,” she said. “We usually have more than one. We take students to art museums, plays and work with parents in those areas to organize trips for students.
One of the first questions a parent asks is about the opportunities for social interaction in a virtual school.
“There is a lot of opportunity for socialization,” she said. “We have over 20 clubs that students can join. In many of those clubs, there is an opportunity to interact with students across the country. Connections Academy has 30 schools in 24 states and these clubs are linked to all of those schools.”
There are also opportunities for face-to-face interaction with other students in clubs and other activities.
The Chess Club is popular. It has a tournament among members with the winner being  brought to Baltimore to watch and play against top chess masters.
“We are always starting new clubs to meet our students’ interests,” she said.
The “classroom” instruction can either be live sessions, in which the student is online while the teacher is giving that day’s lesson, or by accessing a recording of that session.
“That works well for students,” she said. “If they have a conflict with the scheduled live session, they can attend the recorded session. Also, if they have a problem grasping a concept they can go over it four or five times in the recorded session and there’s nobody saying, ‘What’s wrong with you? Are you stupid?’”
The instructional program is designed with the expectation that it will take a student five or six hours to complete that day’s school assignments.
“We know that there are some students that may take eight or nine hours to finish that work,” Jones said. “There are others that can finish it in three hours.”
Jones said 80 percent of students fall in the middle of the “Bell Curve,” but it’s the 10 percent on each end of that curve that have been lost to traditional teaching methods.
The very bright student gets bored and loses interest in class and eventually quits. The student on the lower end of that measurement tool gets frustrated, falls farther behind and eventually quits. 
LACA’s enrollment for 2015-16 is open now and will remain open until the 2,100 positions are filled. For more information, call 888-816-5730 or go online at LouisianaConnectionsAcademy.com .
LAVCA is also in its fourth year of operation and its second as a K-12 program. Dr. Perry Daniel, head of LAVCA, said there are about 20 Avoyelles Parish students in the school this year. Daniel said most of the students are in the middle grades.
“That’s a tough time,” he said.
The school will be having its first prom this year. It had 16 graduates in its first graduation last year and will have about 61 this year.
There are 45 teachers who provide live instruction sessions, as well as recorded sessions, during the week.  In addition to the main classroom session, there are small group sessions scheduled during the week as well.
Daniel said all of LAVCA’s teachers are state certified and highly qualified in their subject area of teaching. Elementary teachers may have up to 70 students assigned to them. Middle and high school teachers can have up to 50 students in a class.
Daniel said LAVCA’s funding is the same as LACA’s -- 90 percent funding through the state MFP, based on the student’s home parish.
“There are those who say the virtual schools are controlled by out-of-state corporations, but that is not true,” Daniel said. “These schools are locally controlled and we are doing what we see as being best for the students and their parents in this state.”
Daniel said the virtual schools “are not here to replace the traditional brick-and-mortar school. We wouldn’t want to because there are students who thrive in that setting,” he said. “I am a product of that setting and I enjoyed it, but there were those right there with me that could have benefitted greatly from a virtual school.”
Daniel said the bottom line in the debate over virtual-vs-traditional schools “is one of options and alternatives.” He said a virtual school “can give a student an opportunity to get more individualized assistance.  Students with unique circumstances can still have access to instruction,  live or recorded, even if they have a lot going on in their lives.
“If a student has medical issues, they can take the laptop and earphone with them and have class while they are in the waiting room waiting for the doctor,” he added.
“For many students, the virtual classroom provides a setting where the student can focus on the lesson being taught,” Daniel continued. “There are no distractions from the other students in the class or activity going on where they cannot concentrate. It’s also a winner for the parents. They literally control the environment in which their child is learning.
"We are proud to provide this additional option for the children of this state," he said, "especially for a student who is struggling in the traditional setting. The fact is, it helps the whole family. If a student is struggling, the whole family struggles.”
LAVCA has 10 testing sites across the state where its students must go to take state-mandated tests. Avoyelles’ testing site is in Alexandria.
“Both LAVCA and LACA are ‘C’ rated schools under the state school performance grades,” Daniel said.
The school plans monthly outings for students, and also schedules academic outings in which the students and parents can meet face-to-face with the teachers.
LAVCA has several clubs and a Student Council.
“We are constantly looking at more ways for students to gain more school spirit and school pride,” Daniel said.
Like LACA, there are no school sports programs at LAVCA. However, Daniel said there has been some talk about the possibility of having individual athletes compete under the school banner in such sports as cross-country, tennis or swimming. For that to happen, he said, the school would have to talk to Louisiana High School Athletic Association officials to see what steps would be needed.
Enrollment for the 2015-16 school year opened April 6. For more information, call 1-877-490-3596 or go online at www.k12.com\lavca .
As reported in an article on the Avoyelles Virtual Alternative Program (AVAP), students reported that they enjoyed working at their own pace instead of the teacher’s. That program incorporates flesh-and-blood teachers in a brick-and-mortar building to provide supervision, guidance and assistance to the students while they work on their online lessons.
The virtual school may not usurp the traditional school in American education, but there are more of them every year and more students “defect” to that model of school every year. 


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