Technology and internet connections make virtual schools a promising alternative in rural areas.
Iowa Connections Academy opened for business in Anita in the fall of 2012. Iowa Virtual Academy did the same in Guttenberg and has 190 students. Both are run by out-of-state education corporations that took advantage of Iowa’s open enrollment law, reliable communication technology and a governor eager to shake up the state’s education system.
Now, with a March 1 deadline to open enroll for the 2014-15 school year, both schools are in the midst of heavy student-recruitment campaigns.
“We consider ourselves an Iowa school,” Connections Academy Principal James Brauer said during a tour of the Anita school building last week. “We will do everything the Iowa codes indicate are the expectations of an Iowa school. Even with our own company, I’ve made it very, very clear, we are more of an Iowa school more than we are a (Connections Academy) school.”
Meanwhile, the first year’s test scores have come out, and some lawmakers are pushing for more access for online school companies.
Inside the school
“OK, OK, very good,” Christina Haas says encouragingly into the speaker. She’s sitting in an office chair set in a high-walled cubicle looking at a pair of computer monitors. On the other end of the line is one of her students from somewhere in Iowa — Haas can’t share any identifying characteristics of the child lest she run afoul of state privacy laws — who is working through a lesson.
Haas is the newest member of the Connections Academy staff, which includes two elementary teachers, six middle and high school teachers and six adjunct teachers. Some work from home; others, including Haas, typically make the trek to the Connections Academy building. Connections Academy schools are a division of the Pearson curriculum and testing company. A company called K12 oversees the Iowa Virtual Academy.
Haas joined the school in October after working in “an early intervention setting” in Pennsylvania. She likes the individual attention she says this setup allows her to give to her students.
“I really feel like there’s a good relationship between the teachers and the students, even one that’s stronger than what you’d see in a brick-and-mortar setting, because they are able to work directly with me,” she said. “Unfortunately, there’s not always the same connection between peers, but that’s something we really work to build.”
Connections Academy gives Brauer the ability to track much of what Haas and the other teachers do during the workday. He can monitor how much time Haas spends talking with students live and how much she messages each day. Student worksheets, contacts per teacher and the speed at which they move through lessons are all available to him with a few keystrokes.
Students at Iowa Connections Academy did, on average, better than their peers on state standardized tests in 2012-13. Students at Iowa Virtual Academy did slightly worse than their statewide counterparts that same school year.
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