Grapevine-Colleyville district will offer a fully online school

Posted Sunday, Mar. 03, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Students from across Texas could be enrolling in the Grapevine-Colleyville school district before next school year.

Trustees recently approved a plan to provide $196,000 in seed money to create an open-enrollment virtual academy. The academy will serve 400 to 500 nontraditional full-time students and will boost the district's declining enrollment.

"Our goal is to have this open when every other school opens in August," said Rick Westfall, the district's chief learning officer. "It'll be a school for those with high expectations and will have college-readiness courses."

The Virtual Academy@GCISD will be one of only three schools of its kind in Texas to offer a free full-time public school curriculum with its own teaching staff online.

The Texarkana ISD Virtual Academy, now in its second year, has 90 students enrolled in grades three through seven. The Texas Connections Academy@Houston, operated by the Houston school district, has about 3,200 online students.

"We only have five local students," said Texarkana virtual academy Principal Marsha Burris, who has been with the district 13 years and is also principal of the alternative high school. "Our majority of students are primarily from the Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio I-35 corridor."

The Virtual Academy@GCISD, the working title of the North Texas program, will be open to any student in Texas who is capable of participating in a virtual school environment, Westfall said. The Texas Education Agency requires that full-time virtual students must have been enrolled in a traditional Texas public school district during the prior year.

All classes will be online. District officials liken it to opening a new school without building a physical facility.

Students with special circumstances such as medical or developmental needs, those who have been bullied, those in the military, and those who are pregnant or have dropped out of traditional school will be good candidates for the virtual school.

Home-schooled students seeking a wider range of courses, and competitive athletes or artists who train or practice in daytime could also benefit from the virtual school.

"It was a great improvement over our home schooling," said Jeanette Meditz of Austin, who has two children in fourth and seventh grades in the Texarkana virtual academy.

"They have lessons four days a week and it keeps them accountable and gives them a sense of reality. It's encouraging for them and a lot of fun," Meditz said.

'A break-even program'

The virtual academy will benefit the Grapevine-Colleyville school district by providing increased enrollment without expenses for facilities and utilities. The district will get the per-student state allotment for each full-time student enrolled.

Officials in the Texarkana district, which has 7,100 students in traditional schools, point to increased enrollment, but Superintendent Paul Norton says it's "basically a break-even program."

Grapevine-Colleyville's preliminary plans call for the virtual academy to start with grades six through 10 and expand to all grades.

"That's when they start to seek different options of schooling," Westfall said of the initial range. "That middle age group in terms of education is most likely when they'll be looking."

All curriculum offered to Grapevine-Colleyville's virtual students will be approved by the Texas Virtual School Network, meaning it is 100 percent aligned with Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills standards.

Classes will include all core subjects, plus electives that are suitable for online learning.

Students in the academy will be required to take all state assessment tests that other full-time students take, Westfall said.

Various online courses are widely available in traditional schools throughout North Texas, and many regular courses have online elements, Westfall said. But full-time students in the academy will be fully involved in an all-online curriculum and will be part of a community of teachers and counselors who are trained and dedicated to teaching in a virtual environment.

Virtual academy programs aren't for everyone: They require a student who is motivated and self-disciplined, experts say. Parents or another adult (called a "learning guide" in academy terms) must be substantially involved.

"The program does require a lot of supervision and input from parents," Norton said. "You can't just sit your child in front of a computer and walk away."

Hours will be flexible

The virtual academy helps address issues of isolation and lack of social opportunities.

"Home schooling can be very isolating," said Meditz, the Austin parent. "I don't think any home-schooler can deny the fact that there is a lack of socialization, and it is a shortcoming."

In Texarkana, Burris said: "We're a little different because of that. We wanted to have a sense of community and relationships with our students."

The students take frequent field trips to learn and connect with one another. Excursions have included trips to the Fort Worth Stock Show and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing plant in Fort Worth.

"This way, students get a chance to meet their fellow students in person," Burris said, "and they're encouraged to meet with their peers online."

Teachers at the new academy will be Grapevine-Colleyville district employees and will have unusually flexible schedules.

"We'll have to find people who are willing to work nonstandard hours," Westfall said. "They will have to work different hours of the day and be online at times on the weekend."

Students will have "live" classroom sessions with their teachers via Elluminate, a real-time online conference tool. Teachers will also have virtual one-on-one and small-group tutorials for students in addition to scheduled face-to-face sessions.

Teachers will be available to students by email, phone, online conference and Skype.

Planning the Grapevine-Colleyville academy and its curriculum has been a yearlong project for Westfall and others, who say the prize is in sight.

"The next step is getting our director and counselor in place and making this thing a reality," Westfall said.

Shirley Jinkins,

817-390-7657

Twitter: @startelegram

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