Since 2011, Ohio’s Arcanum Virtual Academy (AVA) expanded from a small program established in an old band room to a burgeoning virtual education solution serving over 65 students in grades 6–12. Director Jim Gray explains some of his advice to others looking to open or expand a virtual program in their school, and points out the benefits of partnering with a local campus for virtual high school.
Where Learning Clicks: You’ve been running the virtual program for nine years. Were there any benefits to the program that you weren’t initially expecting?
Jim Gray: The Arcanum Virtual Academy was founded in 2011 to serve students who were previously homeschooled, so it surprised us to see the benefit to our traditional students, specifically those who are taking college courses. Online classes free up our juniors’ and seniors’ schedules so they can attend classes at the local community college and still complete the courses required to graduate high school.
It’s also been beneficial to students who have medical issues that keep them out of school. They can continue progress on their schoolwork even if they are homebound. Word has spread and kids from all over the area are driving upwards of 45 minutes to come to AVA because they were homeschooled or didn’t like their school and wanted the social interaction we can provide. That was definitely a surprise.
WLC: How do you foster peer relationships for students enrolled in your virtual program?
Jim: We partner with the school to provide a local campus for virtual high-school students. We have tailgate parties, music, and an AVA welcome night. Former students come to the party alongside current students to develop relationships. We also organize a community service project in the park and field trips, participate in escape rooms, and have pizza parties. Although kids don’t have to come on campus to do their coursework, they like coming here.
I’ve been impressed with how Edgenuity’s virtual teachers work with the students. They build relationships and are very caring. They want to motivate and push students, and I appreciate the support.
WLC: Relationships are so important to students, both with teachers and peers. How have you been able to get your virtual students the teacher support they need?
Jim: We’ve been able to develop a healthy student–teacher relationship with Edgenuity® Instructional Services, but our students also need some live help, especially with math courses. So we have high-school math teachers come over to offer live support and help kids put their pencils to paper. We actually had three students working with a math tutor last night, and they can have phone conversations with their Edgenuity teacher for additional help, too. They can FaceTime and, of course, email, which makes things easier.
I’ve been impressed with how Edgenuity’s virtual teachers work with the students. They build relationships and are very caring. They want to motivate and push students, and I appreciate the support. It’s nice when you have a team working together; you can sometimes feel like you’re on an island with online, but not with this program. I’ve been very impressed with the people I’ve worked with.
WLC: Have you faced any unexpected challenges?
Jim: When we first started, students thought, “It’s online, it’ll be easy,” and we had a flood of kids wanting to join. Unfortunately, we had a bad retention rate. Students saw the rigor and weren’t getting their coursework done, so they went back to their traditional schools. Now we limit enrollment to students who are truly interested in and suited for this alternative form of schooling.
WLC: What advice would you give to others thinking about opening a virtual program?
Jim: There is a fear with administrators. There’s a fear of getting it started, having the right person in charge, a fear of failure. We didn’t know if it was going to work when we did it, but you have to have faith. And I think you have to have something like this now. It’s a fear of not knowing what it would look like, so they look at my building. I believe in what I do. I believe a physical location is very important—a designated area for students to come. Having access to a gym for the social activity has helped grow the program and elicited positive feedback from students and parents. Other administrators like our setup and want to model it.
WLC: So, how can other schools get started?
Jim: Paperwork. Luckily our Edgenuity representative helped walk us through the process to get started. And the results speak for themselves. We have a 100% graduation rate. If they’re with us as a senior, they WILL graduate, and we’re very proud of that.