October 2, 2013

Virtual school’s first year brings hurdles to jump, leaps of success

Just weeks into the first year of the Grapevine-Colleyville virtual school, students praise the flexibility but battle technology hiccups.

Rants, raves, reviews and resources for Dallas-Fort Worth parents

Every step, leap and turn Mikaela Morisato takes has an ease about it that she couldn’t find last year.

The 13-year-old award-winning dancer who dreams of being a professional choreographer struggled to find balance, racing between early morning workouts, classes at George Dawson Middle School and hours of practice after school in Lewisville.

“She is gifted in dance and she is a high achiever and very bright,” said Jennifer Morisato, her mother. “When I saw her dance I knew we were going to do whatever it took for her to dance and go to school.”

Mikaela’s ambition and the demands of her dream didn’t blend with her academic determination in public school until she and her mom met with Ryan Wilson, the principal at her school.

“I just said this wasn’t working. I wondered how we could get her an education?” Jennifer said. “I told him she couldn’t fit it all in.”

Wilson introduced mom and daughter to iUniversity Prep, Grapevine’s virtual school, one of six in the state.

Although Mikaela’s routine seems the same this year — workout followed by school, followed by practice — attending school remotely has made all the difference.

In its first year, iUniversity Prep, an open enrollment online school in the Grapevine-Colleyville school district, provides an alternative to brick-and-mortar public schools. The virtual school currently enrolls grades 6-11, but plans to add a grade level each year beginning with 12th grade next year, then down to third in the years that follow.

More than 100 students are on this year’s roster, said Kaye Rogers, director of virtual education for GCISD. Only 15 students reside in the district.

“Our goal for this year has been to be very intentional in our growth. We are looking to be the best virtual school in Texas and part of that is growing intentionally,” Rogers said. “We will be looking at extended growth next year.”

The students who attend iUniversity are there for a variety of reasons.

“Half of our kids are very involved in non-traditional things outside of school and they still want an excellent education. Some of them want rigorous course work and they want the one-on-one,” Rogers said.

Other students have medical issues and benefit from the flexibility of virtual school, Rogers said.

All school work, including live lectures, tests and assignments, are run through a program called Connexus.

Laurie Alsobrook, a science teacher at iUniversity Prep, said students are encouraged to watch live lectures, not recordings, but recordings exist for those who must miss a lecture for special events or doctor visits.

iUniversity Prep is free and open to any Texas student who has been enrolled in the state’s education system for at least one year. The school receives money from the state for every enrolled student, regardless of where they reside.

Science labs and field trips allow students who live near the campus to come in for social interaction. Mikaela said she goes to the school for meetings, too, and has already begun making friends at iUniversity Prep.

For all its perks though, virtual learning has had some challenges.

In the first few weeks of classes, Mikaela’s computer, a two-year-old laptop, crashed several times when trying to load Connexus, the portal that connects families to the school.

Her mother, who works in graphic design, said she decided it would be best to buy a new computer.

“I am really good at technology, but we are transitioning. Getting all of the equipment to work has been one hurdle,” Jennifer said.

The school’s 10 teachers completed six weeks of training and a 30-hour course on virtual teaching. Mikaela said her teachers have been helpful during her technological issues.

“I do like how you can always reach your teachers and ask them questions,” she said.

Constant access to the Internet and a capable computer are must-haves for all students, Rogers said.

“At this time you have to have high-speed internet and a computer. Just like traditional school where you have to drive to the building,” Rogers said. “When a student is applying for the school, we look at those things. We also make sure the kid has support at home.”

Rogers said the virtual school provides a necessary alternative to traditional learning.

“More than anything, I am a cheerleader for choice for kids and families,” Rogers said. “I think everyone deserves a schooling option that is public and fits their needs. I love being a part of providing a public option.”

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