Online classes ushering new era

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Acacia Clark of Marrero is enrolled in Louisiana Connections, an online school, Wednesday. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Acacia Clark of Marrero is enrolled in Louisiana Connections, an online school, Wednesday.

Acacia Clark and her twin sisters started a new school this year. In many ways it’s like any other public school — it’s tuition-free, meets the curriculum standards of the state, participates in all teacher accountability and testing policies and allows students to apply for TOPS scholarships.

But there are some major differences. For one, Clark, a senior, doesn’t have to get up at 5 a.m. to catch the 6 a.m. bus. And if she has an activity or appointment that interferes, she doesn’t have to miss anything and can adjust her school hours around her schedule. Acacia will also be graduating a year early.

The three girls are enrolled in the Louisiana Connections Academy and take all of their classes online from their home in Marrero. The school, along with the Louisiana Virtual Academy, is one of just two online public schools in the state.

Connections Academy started 10 years ago nationally, first as a private school before moving to public. The school is in its second year of operation in Louisiana, and Principal Caroline Wood said there is a waiting list.

Most of the school’s 1,200 students are between Baton Rouge and Slidell, Wood said, but the numbers are increasing in the New Orleans area. About 10 percent come from Orleans and Jefferson parishes.

Once enrolled, families are provided with computers, books and materials. Students can participate in a range of field trips, clubs and extracurricular activities. Wood said the students are held to very high standards, and the coursework is rigorous.

With a background working in the Louisiana Department of Education, Wood said her experience and knowledge of the rules and policies helped her build the program with a tight focus on the academic success of students.

In addition, Wood has worked for many years as a non-virtual classroom teacher. Because the school is new, it will not be assigned a school performance score by the state until next year.

The students interact with teachers in live lessons on the computer screen and collaborate with other students for group work by video, audio or on-screen chat boxes. They check in regularly for one-on-one time with their teachers and have tutors available throughout the day. Connections Academy employs 45 Baton-Rouge based teachers who work with a larger support staff.

Wood said that she’s seen students build a stronger relationship with teachers over the computer than when they were competing in a classroom of 35 kids.

“The teachers are always there,” Clark said. “The counselors are always there. They are amazing; they help with everything.”

For chemistry, Clark said there is a virtual lab, as well as materials provided for experiments in the kitchen using household items. For P.E., Clark must keep a work out log, and compare her times for running a mile. She must log in a certain number of hours but can choose a variety of activities from playing volleyball in the street with friends to playing Wii games in the living room.

While the school can be a good fit for students like Clark wanting to accelerate their schooling, or for students who are athletes, actors or musicians and travel a lot, the school does not have conditional enrollment. Wood said they open their virtual doors to kids with special needs at all grade levels, as well as provide gifted programs.

The online option attracts students facing a diverse range of challenges, including health problems, developmental or physical disabilities, bullying and behavioral issues.

Wood said she has seen students who are able to achieve at higher levels simply by being removed from an environment where they were not progressing. The school meets the needs of students on either end of the spectrum, Wood said, and works with the kids at their level upon entry and at their pace.

Clark said she likes the flexibility—in being able to incorporate other things into her day as well as being able to take additional time for assignments on which she needs extra help.

While the school is not in the category of home-schooling, Wood said about half the school’s students were previously home-schooled.

Clark said she does miss seeing her friends every day but still keeps in touch with them. Overall, she said she is better able to focus because she isn’t distracted by other students.

With a number of schools closing or going through major changes, Wood says she often gets calls from frustrated parents and wishes she could let more students in, but must operate on a first-come, first-serve basis. The capacity of the school is 1,000 students, but it is allowed to go 20 percent over, she said. About 80 students are on the waiting list.

Clark, who plans to study pre-law at Tulane University or Xavier University, said she is in the debate club and debates other students over a microphone. The club picks topics and divides up into teams, she said, arguing the varying viewpoints on topics like violence in video games and unhealthy food commercials during children’s programming.

Acacia is also in an arts and crafts club.

A crucial component of the school is the learning coach — an adult at home who monitors the students and can check assignments and sign off on the hours logged in. The kids are required to log in six hours a day, mom Tamika Smith said, but if they have conflicts or something else they want to do, they are allowed the flexibility to spread the hours throughout the week.

When Smith approached her twins, who are in 7th grade, about the idea, she said they weren’t sure and wanted to be with their friends. But when Smith told them they could sleep in, stay in their pajamas and take their lunch break whenever they want, the notion grew on them. Clark said she often helps her younger sisters with their lessons.

Occasionally, Smith said she has to remind the twins to get back to work, but they alternate on breaks and are for the most part are good about completing their work. And their grades have gone up, Smith said.

Smith said that starting with three kids at the same time — and a 1-year-old boy at home — was tough. But once they figured out the online layout and got into a routine, they all adjusted well together. There are classes and support resources available for learning coaches as well, Smith said.

One thing Smith said she really appreciated was that her kids were able to get instant results on their tests, so that they could identify the problem areas immediately instead of waiting days or weeks for scores to come in the mail.

Last week, Clark enrolled in a class at Tulane. She will be dually enrolled next semester, getting a head start on college credits.

For Smith, seeing her younger daughters’ grades improve and her oldest graduating early makes the commitment worth it. Plus, she said, “I love them — I don’t mind them being home.”