2 districts asking to go online

Panel backs Fayetteville, Springdale school proposals

Two school districts are preparing to offer students free options for online instruction next fall, pending approval of the Arkansas Board of Education.

A state Charter Authorizing Panel last week recommended the state board approve the Fayetteville School District's plan to open Fayetteville Virtual Academy, as well as the Springdale School District's plan to convert its School of Innovation into a charter school with options for online instruction.

The state Board of Education is expected to consider the panel's recommendations at its December meeting. The board can accept the panel's decisions or conduct separate hearings on the applications.

"This is very new for a traditional [kindergarten through 12th grade] school district to adopt this education system," said Kim Garrett, Fayetteville associate superintendent for secondary education.

Across the country, 315,000 students took all of their courses online in 2013-14, according to a Keeping Pace with K-12 Digital Learning report by the Evergreen Education Group. The firm reported Arkansas had 1,334 students in online school, all enrolled in Arkansas Virtual Academy, an open-enrollment charter school, in the 2013-14 school year.

The Charter Authorizing Panel this month approved the application of Bentonville-based Arkansas Connections Academy, a proposed virtual open-enrollment charter school for up to 3,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, though the school would begin in 2016-17 with as many as 600 students in kindergarten through ninth grade. That decision also is subject to approval by the state Board of Education.

The schools proposed by Fayetteville and Springdale would be open to students within their districts. Students outside of those districts could apply for entry through a public school choice application.

Fayetteville Virtual Academy is designed for a maximum of 500 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, Garrett said. The school would open in August with 100 children in grades four through eight and would expand its reach to all grades by 2019-20.

Pending approval of the state board, Fayetteville School District will need to hire a director; four teachers for English, math, social studies and science; and a field experiences coordinator, Garrett said.

Students will work from home at least three days a week, Garrett said. The school week will provide one day for field experiences that connect their interests. Students will be able to meet in person with their teachers one day a week.

"We are not just sending students home with a computer to do work by themselves," Garrett said.

Fayetteville Superintendent Paul Hewitt said students will have the ability to go over lessons with teachers as needed.

"This is really an incubator for change," Hewitt said. "It's a focused, small project. It can serve as our model to move forward in other areas."

Teachers hired for Fayetteville Virtual Academy will follow the district's curriculum for English, math, social studies and science, Garrett said. The district will contract with a curriculum provider for other subjects.

Should the state board approve of converting the School of Innovation to a charter, the school would add a menu of choices for students, including the option to receive part or all of their instruction online, said Megan Witonski, associate superintendent for Springdale.

If the charter is approved, district and school officials will develop policies and procedures for students interested in the new options, Witonski said.

"We want to transition the Springdale School of Innovation to encompass these additional charter components, which will allow some additional flexibility," Witonski said.

The School of Innovation started two years ago with a class of 200 eighth-graders at The Jones Center. A state-designated school of innovation, the school received waivers to provide for a self-paced curriculum that allows students to move through courses once they show mastery of the content, rather than at the end of a semester. The school this year has about 400 students in the eighth and ninth grades.

With or without a charter, district officials have planned for the campus to move in August to a new building that will be constructed on Hylton Road in east Springdale. It will be designed to accommodate 600 students in grades eight through 10, Witonski said.

Blended and digital instruction potentially could allow for 200 more students in those grades in the 2016-17 school year, according to the district's application. The school would reach up to 1,400 students in grades eight through 12 in the 2017-18 school year. The school would begin providing younger students access to digital courses in 2018-19. By 2019-20, the school would have up to 2,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

"Some of those students might not go into that building," Witonski said.

The School of Innovation will continue to follow the district's curriculum, as well as partnering with Virtual Arkansas, a state provider of online courses for public school districts, Witonski said.

Metro on 11/24/2015

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