ATHENS — Jodie Dean looks forward to starting classes in August as the principal of a new school. This isn’t a traditional school she’ll be leading, but a statewide public virtual school for grades K-12 that’s partnering with the Limestone County school district.
The school, called Alabama Connections Academy, will offer a “high-quality, rigorous curriculum that is a great fit for many families who are looking for an alternative,” Dean said. “It really is an amazing opportunity for parents to have this as an education option."
The Limestone County Board of Education in May agreed to a contract with Connections Education LLC to provide online education services and authorized the opening of Alabama Connections Academy for the 2017-18 school year. Connections Academy, based in Baltimore, Maryland, will have 34 online public schools in 27 states for the upcoming school year, according to Christine Adkins, a spokeswoman for Connections Education, which is part of the education company Pearson.
Though it’s a statewide school, Connections Academy's offices will be at Owens Elementary. Students at Owens will shift to the new Sugar Creek Elementary.
“There are 100 different reasons why” families consider the online school option, said Dean, who has spent 20 years in education as a teacher, principal and vice principal, and, for the last two years, was the principal of New Mexico Connections Academy. A student might be homebound and need to work from home or live in a remote, rural area or need more individual attention.
Dean has talked with two families — one in Montgomery and another in Madison County — who have home-schooled students involved in regional competitive sports. They’re both interested in Alabama Connections Academy, she said, because they want to step back from being the lead educator and move into a more supporting role as a “learning coach.”
The first-year goal for the school is to enroll 750 students and, Dean said, “I think we’ll reach that by Labor Day.”
“There are currently 700 students who have started the enrollment process,” Adkins said. “Families who have begun the enrollment process span the entire state, with a larger population of students located in major cities — Birmingham, Montgomery and Huntsville.” Of the families who have provided their county information, about 100 students live in north Alabama counties, she said.
“There will always be a need for traditional bricks-and-mortar schools,” Limestone County Schools Superintendent Tom Sisk said. “But this partnership with Connections allows us to move a step closer to personalized learning. We get the opportunity to be transformational and be a state leader in virtual learning.”
The Limestone County school district also has a virtual school that’s limited to students who live in the county and 10 miles beyond the county line, Sisk said.
“Can students learn this way? Absolutely," Sisk said. "Colleges are doing this on a grand scale. Is it for all kids? No.”
TraKisha McNeil, outreach manager with Connections Education, said the program provides the basics, such as language arts, social studies, math, science and languages; electives; honors and advanced placement courses; and reading and math remediation, among other offerings. Alabama-certified teachers are hired for the program, and a state-approved curriculum is used, she said, and students are required to take the same state tests as traditional public school students.
As part of the program, a student must have an identified "learning coach," a parent or other adult, to help monitor student attendance, verify classwork and communicate with teachers, Dean said. Administrators and teachers communicate with students through phone calls, webmail and person-to-person and live classroom sessions, she said.
The five-year contract with Connections Education provides a minimum guarantee of $230,000 a year for the school district, regardless of student enrollment or state funding.
“We get all local tax revenue these students generate, and all (federal) Title I, II, III and IV funding generated by these students,” Sisk said.
Connections Education receives “97 percent of the ADM (average daily membership) that the students generate,” he said, and 100 percent of any funding for special education students who are enrolled. Per-pupil state funding is based on ADM.
“We don’t incur any expenses” for Alabama Connections Academy, Sisk said. “There’s no cost to (local) taxpayers to educate these students.”
The school district, Sisk said, didn’t move hastily into a statewide virtual school partnership. “We have done our homework,” he said. “We wanted to partner with what we believe is the premier provider of virtual learning in the country.”
And he expects enrollment will continue to grow. “We have high hopes it’ll be over 1,000 by year two,” he said.