Virtual Academy: Fayette's on-line school proves popular 2013.10.30



Gene Rupp expected maybe a dozen students, at the most, would be interested in taking courses this semester through the new Fayette Virtual Academy.

Rupp, who was hired last summer to direct the program, intended to get the on-line school off the ground in January, but he welcomed having a few students try it out in the fall to see how it worked.

Rupp was in for a surprise. Students looked over the course offerings and started signing up by the dozens. 

January is still eight weeks away, but the Fayette Virtual Academy has 46 students enrolled in 93 classes. Several students just wanted to take the ACT Prep course to get ready for the test, but others are looking toward the future and taking courses that could have an impact on a career.

Junior Taylor West, for example, is one of three students studying veterinary science for two semesters.

"I love it," she said. "I want to be a vet and this is going to make it easier knowing what I'm going to be studying in college."

Veterinary science used to be part of the school's agriculture curriculum, but the state education department made some changes that took it out of local class offerings.

The on-line curriculum deliver electives to Fayette’s 143 resident high school students that couldn’t be offered in a school five times larger. Before this semester, band, choir, art and agriculture were the only electives offered. That changed dramatically with the virtual school.

Alexis Fruchey is enrolled in criminology. Dylan Stannard is studying medical terminology. Seth Beaverson has a mythology course this semester and he'll give astronomy a try in January. For Colin McCabe, it's philosophy, and he's covering the material quickly, said Lacy Stambaugh, who is serving as the classroom monitor.

She expected to spend most of her time in the library again this year—putting her library media master's degree to use—but as enrollment in the academy grew, time away from the library also increased. She's now busy coordinating parent volunteers for the library and training them in the basic skills needed.

Stambaugh helps students with problems they encounter and material they don't understand, but the goal is to have the school's classroom teachers also involved in the on-line program. At this time, only one teacher has joined in, helping four students enrolled in a journalism class.

Stambaugh sees staff involvement in the virtual school as a way of protecting jobs.

"Even though we're losing students," she said, "we want to keep our teachers."

That may be a tough sell to classroom teachers, but schools are changing, Stambaugh says.

It's an easy sell to the students involved.

Alexis Fruchey likes the quiet compared to a regular classroom, but kids are also free to put on a pair of headphones and listen to music while they work.

She also appreciates the extra time given to complete assignments. Students work at their own pace and it's up to them to push forward. Stambaugh provides suggested guidelines with dates and she also monitors progress. Software allows her to see how often a student logs in to work.

"When a student says, 'I'm not getting this,' I can say 'That's because you've only spent two hours on-line compared to others who have put in 20,'" she said.

There are some 90-minute videos in Fruchey's criminology course and she saves them for homework. Once a student logs in, the session must be completed or else they have to start at the beginning again.

Fruchey and the two students sitting with her give the academy high grades. Dylan Stannard appreciates the ability to move at his own pace and Koby Biddix is pleased with the variety of courses available. He's enrolled in a Spanish III class after two years in the classroom.

The students admit there's something missing without a teacher leading the class, but so far they've found adequate help from Mrs. Stambaugh. All three put in some class time on a computer at home in the evening.

The classes typically have tests from the material read that are auto-graded on the computer. Lab sessions are usually video related and Stambaugh handles the grading of those tests. Discussion questions require that a student explain their point of view about a topic, with no right or wrong answer. A final exam is taken at the end.

BLENDED—"Blended learning environment" is a phrase heard more and more in schools and Fayette is seeing evidence through its virtual academy. One student who takes on-line courses at home attends math class in a regular classroom.

Fayette is hoping to attract more home-schooled children next year, either to enroll through the Virtual Academy or to take a regular class such as band or physical education to supplement their work at home.

"Our goal is to provide expanded opportunities for our students," Rupp said, "but also provide one of the best virtual school options for those who want to study at home. But if they need help, we're here. It's not just an on-line school."

Some schools develop an academy that's completely separate from the regular school, but Rupp prefers the blended environment.

"Our greatest asset, other than our students, is our staff," he said. "We want to combine the best of both. That's what makes us unique."

There's a student from another district who is taking all four core courses on-line through Fayette's school rather than with the on-line school she used in the past.

"We could be giving diplomas to kids we've never met," Stambaugh said.

Fayette uses the GradPoint program provided by Pearson. There's money to be made by on-line school companies—witness the phone calls, mail campaigns, even signs on utility poles—but they aren't all of the same quality, and some give virtual school a bad name, Stambaugh said. One of the popular companies has a graduation rate of only 15 percent. Another advertises itself as a way for a district to cut costs.

"That's not what we want to do," Stambaugh reiterates. "Our goal is to keep our teachers here and offer the kids even more."

An affiliation with Northwest State is expected to begin next fall to offer dual credit in high school and in college. Eventually Rupp wants a student to be able to accumulate two years worth of college credit before earning a high school diploma.

Advanced Placement (AP) courses will be offered in the fall and GED classes should start in January, allowing community members to use the computer lab after school and in the evenings.

"I see the success, I see the kids excited to come in here and be a part of it," Stambaugh said. "That's why I'm pushing it."