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Fort Smith schools to have online charter school starting next fall

by Monica Brich | November 21, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

FORT SMITH -- The School District's online option will become a conversion charter school for kindergarten through eighth-graders starting in fall 2022.

The School Board heard an update from Samantha Hall, assistant director of district innovation, during its meeting Monday.

"When covid hit, one of the first things that we noticed was that teachers were not all in the same place," Hall said.

The district spent spring and summer 2020 giving teachers the skills and tools necessary to work in a digital environment, she said.

Hall said the online option was implemented through Act 1240 open-enrollment waivers last fall and included elementary and middle school classes for 24 of the district's 26 schools. The district found during the pandemic online learning is a good alternative for some students, resulting in the state recommending the option be made into a conversion charter school.

"It's not ideal for every student," she said. "I would never say that the virtual option is the best option as a whole for students. I like students right there in front of their teachers, just like most of you do, but there is a segment of students that for lots of different reasons function well in a digital environment. They function as well as they would in a regular school, but they have medical issues that prevent them from being comfortable on-site. Some have behavioral issues or learning issues that just make it a better choice, as well."

Tiffany Bone, assistant superintendent, said online schooling was being developed before the covid-19 pandemic, but that it helped accelerate the process. The Arkansas Board of Education approved the charter conversion last week, she said.

Hall said the charter school will still be a part of the Fort Smith district and enroll students from within its boundaries. She said each elementary grade will have roughly one teacher, with a teacher per subject for the middle grades, all centered on online learning, community involvement and career focus.

"Our goal by the time they exit eighth grade, students have a clear idea of what they can do to give back to communities, and some ideas of where they want to go. A more informed choice on a career path, whether that be college-bound, career tech-bound or whatever they decide to do at that point," she said.

Hall said the school will be called Fort Smith Virtual Academy and will be in the school's Peak Innovation Center. The building is nearing completion and was approved as part of the district's millage in 2018.

The academy portion of the center was purchased through Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief money and will be a flexible location for teaching staff and in-person testing. She said having a physical location will help students have a sense of school pride and allow them to come together in a non-online environment for educational or social/emotional purposes.

"With that said, we still will offer opportunities to participate in extracurricular activities. Those will be through their zoned schools. So if they want to be in band, choir, orchestra, athletics, middle school students can participate in their zoned schools," she said.

Hall said the academy can have up to 500 students, and an application process will be developed next spring.

"I don't anticipate, especially at the very beginning, hitting near that cap. I'm hoping that as we get it out there and get it branded and get people seeing what we're doing, that we will get closer to that. But honestly, we don't really want the numbers too high because of that individualized part of the program," she said.

Board Member Dalton Person called the online school innovative and acknowledged the work to create it. He asked Hall how online students would participate in electives.

Hall said physical education, art and music teachers at the elementary level have scheduled Zoom calls with students once a week during their regular school day. She said teachers at the middle school level currently have a separate contract to Zoom with students for two to four hours after school.

"Congratulations," Board Member Dee Blackwell said. "This is truly exciting. As a mom who had two children who participated in this program last year, I think it's great to see how far you've grown and what you've done. You've just hit the ground running from minute one, and have done a great job developing these programs."


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