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Class on the computer

Northwest Arkansas Education Service Cooperative pilots virtual school by DENISE NEMEC SPECIAL TO NWA DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE | October 24, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

FARMINGTON — Bailey Anderson, a newly minted elementary teacher, instructs out of an office instead of a classroom. She teaches students using computers, Zoom and other programs.

Anderson’s pupils are students who she said have medical restrictions, “thrive more in a virtual setting than a social setting,” or who have other eligible reasons to continue learning virtually. The students are members of school districts that don’t have the resources to continue offering virtual education to only a few.

Northwest Arkansas Education Service Cooperative was made aware of this need and worked with five school districts to create a new pilot K-6 Virtual School, with Anderson its first and only teacher.

Anderson currently teaches 37 students from four school districts in grades K-6 who meet with her using their school Chromebook computers and, if needed, Wi-Fi hotspots. She said she has taught up to 41 students and can teach up to a maximum of 45 students.

A carefully crafted and color-coded daily schedule serves as her guide for which grade level and which subject she’ll teach in 20- to 30-minute segments. Anderson said attendance on screen during set class meeting times is mandatory. Other than that, she said she isn’t too concerned about how much time students are logged in if they are completing and submitting their homework.

Anderson suggests students be logged in for two to six hours each day, including class meeting times. Assignments are expected to be submitted on time, with some wiggle room for late submission if work is completed within its academic quarter.

Missy Hixson, the cooperative’s assistant director and teacher center coordinator, said, “Bailey and I worked for more than a week in August on scheduling students per the DLP [digital learning plan] requirements and setting up parent communication plans, as well as training on the Florida Virtual lessons. We developed a NWAESC K-6 virtual calendar and attempted to follow all of the district’s days as much as we could.”

Anderson said she is the students’ teacher of record for instruction and support, but each student is still the responsibility of his or her school district. She said she sends weekly reports on attendance and grades to each student’s school, and some schools have a virtual-learning liaison with whom she coordinates.

At the beginning of the school year, Anderson was teaching 41 students, which included four in kindergarten, eight first-graders, three second-graders, two third-graders, 20 fourth- and fifth-graders combined, and four sixth-graders. She said she combines some lessons for her different grades.

Younger students need more help, Anderson said, and parents are expected to sit with their children who are in kindergarten up to second grade during class meeting sessions and help them navigate homework and submit it.

By third grade, Anderson said, students are able to navigate Buzz, the school’s learning management system, to complete and submit assignments without parents’ help or presence.

Anderson said the school is using Florida Virtual curriculum, which the education co-op bought for the pilot virtual school. The curriculum is housed in the Buzz learning management system.

Anderson said she creates a daily, virtual, interactive “white board” that tells each grade what they are doing that day, where to find the related materials and what is due. Students then scroll down the page to see and begin working on assignments.

She said in addition to covering required material, she offers social time such as classroom parties for students to share, and she takes students on virtual field trips to places like the Smithsonian’s National Science Museum.

Although virtual school is taught using sterile cyberspace, the room Anderson teaches in at the cooperative building in Farmington glows with pink neon, a feathery white lamp shade, a fur-covered chair, and a white circle light above her computer screen. A river of colors flows on the wall students see behind her, which she said her mother, Teresa Anderson, helped her paint before school started in August.

Anderson earned her bachelor’s degree in educational studies in 2018 and her masters of art degree in elementary education in 2021, both at University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, and she works for and is paid by the education cooperative, said Director Bryan Law.

Law said Anderson was hired because of her student-teaching experience at Arkansas Virtual Academy in spring 2021, which he said “was a great plus for us.”

Hixson said, “Bailey has stepped up and done a fabulous job with this multiple grade schedule, teaching multiple grades and developing contacts with more than 37 parents/ students. Her knowledge of technology/virtual teaching has been a fabulous gift. We are lucky to have found such a knowledgeable, enthusiastic and quick learner.”

Anderson said her student teaching at the Arkansas Virtual Academy prepared her well for her current job. In addition to using Florida Virtual curriculum, Anderson said she uses Google Calendar, Google Docs, Google Slides and Google Sheets [spreadsheets]. She said she also uses Gmail to communicate with parents and students.

She teaches language arts, math, social studies, science, physical education and world history. Because she isn’t certified to teach art or music, a colleague from the education service cooperative in Pine Bluff logs in to teach those classes.

Law said Pine Bluff and Branch education service co-ops are offering similar pilot virtual schools to their districts.

School districts receive funding for each student and most of the funding for K-6 Virtual School comes from passing along those funds to the cooperative, according to Law. The districts are billed for their students enrolled in the pilot program, and the cooperative charges districts “what it costs to run the program,” Law said.

His rough guess is that the cost per student is $2,000, but because this is the school’s first year, he said the exact cost won’t be clear until the end of the year, June 30, 2022. No family pays for its child to attend K-6 Virtual School, Law said.

The mission of each of the state’s 16 education service cooperatives is to serve its assigned school districts’ needs, according to the Arkansas Department of Education website. After learning some of its districts needed help to continue offering qualified students the option of virtual education, Northwest Arkansas Education Service Cooperative developed a consortium with Farmington, Prairie Grove, Siloam Springs, Elkins and Gentry school districts.

Law said larger school districts served by the cooperative are able to handle virtual education on their own, but smaller districts don’t have the personnel or resources to continue to do so now that the coronavirus pandemic shut down has been lifted and most students have returned to in-person school.

Hixson said each district developed a state Digital Learning Plan which was approved by the State Board of Education.

“We developed a NWAESC plan and merged it with each district plan. We provide the teacher for content only (math/literacy/science/social studies), and the districts work with specialty classes such as Special Education.”

Anderson said some of her students are in K-6 Virtual School because of the mask mandate at their schools and some are in it because of the lack of a mask mandate. She said, “The best learning is the safe learning.”

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