NC Virtual Charter Schools
Two new options for NC students
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Going to school full-time without leaving home may seem like a fantasy, but it’s a fantasy that has come true for students attending two virtual charter schools available to North Carolina students: North Carolina Virtual Academy and North Carolina Connections Academy.
Virtual charter schools allow students in kindergarten through high school to attend an accredited online school that follows the state curriculum.
“A virtual charter school is a real school, but it uses a different method of delivery,” says Joel Medley, principal of North Carolina Virtual Academy. “The kids take statewide assessments, they take quizzes and tests, they have curriculum to work through. It’s a real school, and that needs to be understood.”
North Carolina Virtual Academy was established in 2000 and has schools in 32 states and Washington, D.C. North Carolina Connections Academy was established in 2001 and has schools in 26 states. The schools are expected to reach a total enrollment of 5,000 within the next four years, according to Deanna Townsend-Smith, lead educational consultant for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.
These virtual charter schools are here thanks to parent requests and lobbying efforts targeting the North Carolina General Assembly and State Board of Education. Approximately 17,000 people expressed interest in having this option for students, says Dee Stewart, executive director of the North Carolina chapter of PublicSchoolOptions.org. Interested parents also conducted a media campaign to garner support.
The General Assembly heeded their call and enacted legislation last year to create a four-year pilot for virtual charter schools in the state. When the State Board of Education sought applications, North Carolina Virtual Academy and North Carolina Connections Academy applied and were approved.
Going to Cyber School Full-time
Virtual charter schools work for a variety of students, such as those who are self-motivated, exhibit severe behavior challenges, have been bullied or learn at an uneven pace. Students who need flexibility due to illness, travel-sports teams or other activities also benefit from virtual charter schools.
A child attending a virtual charter school must work with a learning coach, usually the parent, who assumes responsibility for the child’s education, monitors attendance, maintains a schedule, oversees the student’s work and consults with the teacher(s).
Students who attend a virtual charter school spend 28-29 hours a week doing schoolwork — about the same as in brick-and-mortar schools. They have regularly scheduled live lessons with teachers and classmates, and complete remaining schoolwork any time during the week.
This flexibility allows Jennifer Ratcliff’s 6-year-old daughter Sarah* to take frequent breaks, which help her concentrate and prevent fatigue. Sarah’s day starts with a live lesson, after which she plays for an hour. Then Sarah starts on her assignments. However, instead of working five hours straight, Sarah does her schoolwork in pieces, stopping to walk the dog or engage in other energy-burning activities.
“If Sarah has ants in her pants, she can do a math problem, go run around the house and then do another math problem,” Ratcliff says.
The Ratcliffs, who recently moved to Winston-Salem, just started their second year with North Carolina Connections Academy.
Sarah has also participated in a reading enrichment class, one of many options for students who are ahead of their classmates. Likewise, students who struggle may receive additional live lessons or other assistance to get them on track.
“We watch data live to see whether students are progressing or not,” says Nathan Currie, principal of North Carolina Connections Academy. “If a student is having difficulty, we put interventions in place.”
Despite working in cyber world, teachers — all of whom are North Carolina-certified — maintain strong relationships with students. In addition to live lessons, Ratcliff says Sarah’s previous teacher was available online and by phone for one-on-one instruction. Teachers call students and parents regularly to check on how things are going.
Though parents are responsible for socialization, the schools provide occasional opportunities for outside activities such as field trips and student get-togethers.
To learn more about North Carolina Virtual Academy and North Carolina Connections Academy, visit ncva.k12.com and connectionsacademy.com.
If you’re interested in a virtual charter school for your child, contact the school and talk with a counselor. If you decide it’s a good fit, you’ll need to supply the school with the required documentation: the child’s vaccination records, proof of residency, birth certificate and academic records.
If necessary, the school will assess your child to determine the appropriate grade for him or her. Then the school will develop an Individualized Learning Plan for your child and send your child’s textbooks to him or her.
If your child is eligible for free or reduced lunch, the school will provide a computer and assistance with Internet connection expenses.
*This name has been changed to protect the child’s identity.
Lynda Van Kuren is a freelance writer based in Wilmington. She has written extensively on education issues.