Northeast Tarrant

iUniversity Prep celebrates first graduation

Class Salutatorian David Foust before graduation for Grapevine-Colleyville ISD's iUniversity Prep, a tuition-free online school.
Class Salutatorian David Foust before graduation for Grapevine-Colleyville ISD's iUniversity Prep, a tuition-free online school. Fort Worth Star-Telegram

For about half of his senior year, Alex Gross went to school at an ice rink in New Hampshire.

He’d arrive at the rink before 7 a.m., get online with his laptop and go to class for a few hours at Grapevine-Colleyville school district’s iUniversity Prep. After practicing as a goalie with the Eastern Hockey League’s Northern Cyclones, he’d get a few more hours of schoolwork done.

“The rink had the best Wi-Fi available,” Gross said.

The hockey league was for 17- to 20-year-olds, so most of them had already graduated from high school. Practices were usually in the morning. If Gross didn’t have the flexible option for his senior year, he would have missed the opportunity to play the game he loves at a high level.

“I didn’t have prom or homecoming, but it was a trade-off I was willing to make,” Gross said. “When you get to follow where your passion lies, it’s a very good path.”

The Fort Worth teen missed some of the typical senior milestones, but he did attend graduation Friday night at the Palace Theatre in Grapevine. Gross is part of the first graduating class from iUniversity Prep, the Grapevine-Colleyville district’s online school.

The class of 2015 had 26 graduates. The ceremony was short and traditional, with seniors in caps and gowns receiving diplomas. Graduating senior Kimber Jackson of Keller performed with her musical group, Unity.

After the ceremony, a group of educators hopped into vehicles to go to Richardson and award a diploma to a senior during intermission at her dance recital at the Eisemann Center.

The extra commencement exemplifies how the virtual academy works. Instead of expecting students to adjust their schedules and activities to fit the school calendar, iUniversity Prep gives students the flexibility to manage classwork around other priorities.

Students from across Texas

Now in its second year, the school offers individualized instruction for fifth through 12th grade. Most of the 330 students enrolled this past year are middle and high school ages and 85 percent do not live in the Grapevine Colleyville school district. Students must be Texas residents but don’t need to live anywhere near the district. They reside in 90 cities around the state, from Corpus Christi to El Paso.

“It’s all about the kids, kids first. It’s a great venue for those who are looking for something different and have the home support to be successful,” said Kaye Rogers, director of virtual education.

Not all the students are athletes or performers. Some struggle with illnesses that make regular school attendance a challenge. Others have had trouble with a negative school environment or want to accelerate their education.

The virtual academy offers numerous Advanced Placement and pre-AP and dual enrollment courses, allowing students to get college credit, but doesn’t have many career and technical education classes.

Those who thrive are typically tech savvy, have good reading comprehension skills and get encouragement from parents, Rogers said.

Self-paced instruction

Alex Gross’s father, Darryl Gross, said his son attended North Crowley High School his junior year. While he didn’t struggle too much with getting behind on school work, he had trouble meeting attendance requirements.

The family discovered iUniversity Prep through Alex’s fellow hockey players. Alex had to go through an application process “to make sure this type of program fit his study style,” Darryl Gross said.

What stood out about the academy was the accessibility of the instructors.

“The teachers were very helpful,” Darryl Gross said. “They really made it painless.”

Rogers said the school will have 20 teachers in the fall, up from 17 this year. In addition to set times for live lessons, teachers also post “office hours” when they are available via chat, text and email, often working one-on-one with kids.

Jackson, the singer, said that if she was unable to log in live because of a performance, she could watch the recorded lesson and text the teacher with any questions. Most were quick to respond.

It was “definitely different” from attending Keller High School, where she spent her freshman and sophomore years, she said. Students at iUniversity Prep must pace themselves.

“You don’t have a teacher sitting down and explaining every single thing to you,” she said.

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