When Gulf Shores decided to break away from the Baldwin County Public School System, it had an eye on not just a new system, but a unique one as well.
“That’s one of the things that I talked about when I was hired and that’s personalizing education,” Superintendent Dr. Matt Akin said.
To that end, Akin announced some changes in the virtual school, which started this summer with course offerings for high school students. The courses are open to any resident or nonresident students grades six through 12 and there is no tuition.
Akin said his school board recently hired Dr. Stephanie Harrison from Baldwin County to be in charge of the system’s virtual academy. Harrison started the state’s first virtual school there about five years ago. Since then the state requires all public high schools to offer virtual classes, Harrison said.
“One of the things we are going to do, we are going to be able to give students the opportunity to take all of their classes online and you can be a 100-percent virtual student,” Harrison said. “Or you can be what we’re calling a blended student. What that means is you are enrolled in our virtual academy and you take at least six classes per year. Four of those classes could be online but the other two you could take in a traditional face-to-face format at either Gulf Shores Middle School or Gulf Shores High School.”
Akin said it’s another part of his plan to adapt to the needs of students while expanding educational opportunities.
“Let’s say you’re a virtual school student but you’re not so strong in math,” Akin said. “You may decide to take calculus face-to-face in a traditional class at Gulf Shores High School and then take your other five classes virtual. Or you may decide you’re going to health sciences, a career tech class that’s not available online, and you take the rest of your classes virtual.
“We’re really trying to develop a flexible environment that will benefit kids that may not want to be in a traditional school all day.”
Virtual students would also be able to participate in extracurricular activities as well as attend events on campus, Harrison said.
“Most school systems around the state allow students to take face-to-face [physical education] or face-to-face band,” Harrison said. “But in our program, we’re going to let them take two face-to-face classes out of anything that we offer at the school. So, really anything in our course catalogs at either of those schools is also open to virtual school students. That’s unique for our area.”
Because of a restructuring of the middle and elementary schools, virtual class offerings are now extended to students in sixth grade, Harrison said.
“After we became a city school system, we reconfigured our middle school to be grades six through eight, which is the norm at schools across the country,” Harrison said. “So, we will open our virtual academy to sixth-grade students and there’s not another school or virtual academy that takes sixth-grade students.”
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