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NC Students Log Online For State's First Virtual Schools

Fingers on a keyboard, computer,
Wikimedia Commons

For the first time in North Carolina, public school students can take all of their classes online by logging on to their computers at home.

This summer, the state opened two virtual charter schools, N.C. Connections Academy and N.C. Virtual Academy. Both schools have met their enrollment caps of 1,500 students, and families are on wait lists, according to the principals.

At N.C. Virtual Academy, teachers work at home, while teachers at Connections Academy are based at an office in Durham. When you walk into the building, you don’t see colorful hallways plastered with student work, or kids bouncing on monkey bars outside. Instead, there are clusters of gray cubicles crowded with teachers on headsets.

“You like to paint? What do you like to paint,” asked one kindergarten teacher to a student over the phone. “You like to paint unicorns? Can you paint a picture for me someday?"

On this day, teachers are taking some time to get to know their students. A few cubicles over, another teacher, Cameron Vandenboom, said it is her first year teaching online.

“This is just a completely different thing. It’s requiring students to have a little bit more initiative, having the parents have more contact with me. In a traditional classroom you don’t always get that,” she said.

Credit Reema Khrais
N.C. Connections Academy teacher Corey English works at his cubicle where he communicates with his middle school students via computer and phone.

  How Does It Work?

“We don’t get to meet them face-to-face, but we do feel like we know them. I think this actually works out pretty well,” said Eli Clodfelter, a ninth-grader from the Mecklenburg area.

All students are required to have someone at home to work with them – they’re called learning coaches. Eli’s coach is his mom.

“If I have a question, I will come to her and ask her about it, if I can’t figure it out on my own,” he said. “But otherwise, I do it all. She doesn’t have to hover over me.”

Of course, it’s a different story with six or seven year-olds. They require a lot more hand-holding. When students aren’t working on their own or with a learning coach, they are typically in a live lesson with a teacher. 

In addition to online lessons, the schools ships textbooks, lab supplies and other class materials for hands-on activities to students’ homes.

In terms of testing, students are required to take end-of-grade and end-of-class assessments in person at specific locations.

“What I hear a lot of times, is 'do you think what you’re doing, this computer stuff, is this going to replace teachers?’" said Nathan Currie, N.C. Connections Academy principal. “And my answer to that is absolutely not. The computers will never replace a good teacher. However, those teachers that don’t use computers will be replaced.”

Some critics worry that full-time online schools hinder the social development of students. Virtual school advocates explain that students interact online during class, and that the schools offer field trip opportunities and clubs.  

Concerns About Quality In Other States

N.C. Connections Academy, which is managed by the education giant Pearson, and N.C. Virtual Academy, managed by K12 Inc., are part of a four-year pilot program required by the state legislature.

It took a while for some state officials to warm up to the idea of bringing online schools to North Carolina because of their questionable track records in other states.

Gary Miron, a Western Michigan University professor and expert on school reform, said only one out of every three full-time virtual schools are meeting state standards.

“That’s pretty terrible,” he said. “When we look at brick and mortar charter schools, we see that more than half are meeting state standards.”

Miron added that graduation rates are half the average of all public schools. He helped author several reports from the National Education Policy Center that call for greater accountability and oversight of virtual schools.

“I’m not a naysayer, I believe that they can work,” he said, “But I strongly believe that they’re not working.”

Miron said that for-profit companies running the schools have led to some to some questionable practices, like heavily marketing its schools to families that are not fit for the program in order to rake in more money.

But according to some experts, North Carolina’s approach is relatively smart.  

“North Carolina may be approaching this methodically and wisely. They’ve allowed two schools to open, capped their enrollment,” said Luis Huerta, associate professor of education and public policy at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Huerta, who also helped author the recent NEPC reports on virtual schools, said that North Carolina has passed legislation in the last few years that encourage schools to develop more virtual content.

He said the state also requires all teachers in virtual charter schools to hold full-state certification, which is not common in many states.

Joel Medley, principal of N.C. Virtual Academy, said he believes his school will be successful because it focuses on the individual, and not the group.

“Any time that there is something brand new, there is always questions, always opposition,” said Joel Medley, principal of N.C. Virtual Academy. “But for us, we want the opportunity to show what can be done.”

Medley said he believes his school will be successful because it focuses on the individual, and not the group.

That philosophy is one of the reasons why ninth-grader Eli Clodfelter is drawn to online learning – because he can move at his own pace. He said traditional schooling wasn’t a good fit because he finished his work too quickly and had trouble fitting in.

“It was awful,” he said. “I had a few friends, but I wouldn’t call them friends, they were just people who didn’t pick on me.”

Clodfelter said he wants to graduate with N.C. Connections Academy. If he does, he’ll be part of the school’s first graduating class in 2019.

Reema Khrais joined WUNC in 2013 to cover education in pre-kindergarten through high school. Previously, she won the prestigious Joan B. Kroc Fellowship. For the fellowship, she spent a year at NPR where she reported nationally, produced on Weekends on All Things Considered and edited on the digital desk. She also spent some time at New York Public Radio as an education reporter, covering the overhaul of vocational schools, the contentious closures of city schools and age-old high school rivalries.
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