One in a Chalkbeat series about virtual schools.
Online schools offer opportunities that can be life-changing for children who need flexible learning, even though the schools have broadly demonstrated a poor track record in Indiana so far.
Indiana Connections Academy, along with every online school in the state that tested students in 2016, received an F grade from the state last month.
But the Neiers and Taylors, who have been with Indiana Connections Academy since it opened in 2010, are happy with their choice. They said the self-paced nature of virtual learning, the lack of social distractions and the ability to learn anytime, anywhere, have given their kids the environment they need to be successful.
The families — who are from Franklin and related — learned about virtual schooling when Stephanie Neier, a mother of five, enrolled her kids after hearing rave reviews of Connections Academy from a friend. Her oldest son has autism, and traditional high school wasn’t working for him, she said.
“I don’t mind the public education curriculum,” Neier said. “It was more about meeting each of my individual kids where they are in their education and what they need.”
Other children in the families struggle with learning disabilities or chronic health issues and appreciate the freedom to learn when and where they want
Students from Connections Academy, the second largest online school provider in Indiana with 4,032 students, talked with Chalkbeat about why virtual school works for them.
Excerpts from interviews have been edited for length and clarity. Editor’s notes are in italics.
How online school compares to traditional school
Demetri Taylor, 11th grade: The comparison to brick-and-mortar school is the attention you receive. At a brick-and-mortar school, teachers have a whole class to deal with at one time. Here, you can easily contact a teacher and they can do one-on-ones with you so you can get the help you need.
(Online schools generally serve more students in a virtual “classroom,” but the software they use allows students to speak privately with teachers during lectures, as well as contact them easily outside formal class time.)
The time is also a great thing at Connections. I take one class at Franklin High School, so that allows me to play sports — I take tennis. I have several friends that are always trying to get caught up because you only have so much time (during the traditional school day) to get caught up. In a virtual setting, you don’t have that problem because your workspace is very flexible. So if you have an internship, you can work around that.
Wyatt Taylor, 11th grade: Here, you can really take it step by step and just learn at your own pace. What I like about the school is that what effort you put into the school is the effort that’s going to come back at you.
Tori Taylor, ninth grade: There aren’t social cliques in my school. There isn’t a specific group you have to belong to — we’re just all one big group. You don’t have the “populars” the “geeks” the “nerds” or whatever. You have just one group, and kids socialize with whoever they want.
What they like best about virtual school
Tori: Virtual school is definitely easier on me because I’m dyslexic, and I have ADD. When I was in (traditional) public school, I couldn’t focus on anything, and I didn’t get any help with my dyslexia.
(Tori said she didn’t receive special education services in public school, and now that she’s at Connections Academy, she has a learning plan that address her disabilities and receives extra tutoring for her dyslexia.)
There’s not as many distractions — you’re at home, and you know the people you are working with, and you know what they’re going to do. Even if you get behind, you have opportunities throughout the year to catch up. Now my dyslexia is way better. I can actually read a book now.
Abigail Taylor, seventh grade: Math is not really my strongest subject, and before I came to this school, I just about flunked third grade. This school has helped me get my math better, and my knowledge in math is actually probably higher than it’s ever been.
Ashleigh Neier, 10th grade: We have field trips that we go on that the school sponsors. Or, my mom will put something up on a Facebook page and a group of us will get together and we’ll all go out for lunch one week, or we’ll go to someone’s house and play games one night. We build these friendships through those things and field trips.
What they’d change about online school
Wyatt: I just recently got into student council, and one thing I’m trying to do right now is get more interaction between students outside of the live lessons. Maybe a live lesson for kids to hang out and chat. Definitely I would try and get more social activity between each of the students.
Tori: Back when I first started virtual school, it was rough, and I wanted to go back just because the socialization wasn’t the same. After I got through that, it was nice because then we were in fifth grade and we went on a ton of field trips. Once I realized you could actually socialize with people, I wouldn’t change a thing.
(Virtual schools can not only have their own student government, but they also have clubs and other social and academic activities that are unique to their schools and help them connect with other kids and families in their communities.)
What they want to do when they grow up:
Wyatt: I’m pretty sure I’m going to go into the Air Force. I feel like this is a really good school — it gives you the time to prepare to the college you really want to go to.
Demetri: I’m thinking of going to IUPUI and becoming an American Sign Language interpreter, and after that hopefully work for (Luna Language Services). My friend’s mom works up there, and I job shadowed up there. (IUPUI is the merged campus of Indiana University and Purdue University in Indianapolis.)
Ashleigh: I want to also go to IUPUI and do ASL interpreting and get a pediatrics physical therapy degree and work with hippotherapy — therapy on a horse (for kids with special needs). My brother did hippotherapy, and I went and watched a couple sessions. I love working with special needs kids — that’s one of my passions, and I love horses, and so it’s kind of like the best of both worlds.
Tori: All I do is listen to music, (so I’m considering studying) music. I also love horses, and I’ve looked into horse training. I want to go to IUPUI to get my veterinary degree.
Abigail: I at least want to try to become a singer … or a crime investigator because investigating crimes just has always inspired me.