From the comfort of their homes, more than 140 students have left local school systems over the past year to become virtual students of a district more than 300 miles away.
The Limestone County School District authorized its first fully virtual school in fall 2017, and today Alabama Connections Academy (ALCA) enrolls 2,030 students statewide. Part of a larger network of tuition-free online public schools operating across the U.S., ALCA is open to any Alabama student in grades K-12 and meets the same state curriculum and testing standards required of any other public school district. However, state law prevents virtual public schools from operating outside of an established public school system.
As a result, there are more than 100 ALCA students who live in Mobile County and around 40 from Baldwin County who are now officially Limestone County students.
From anywhere with an internet connection, ALCA students can login to classes led by state certified teachers for live lessons, classwork or one-on-one sessions. Like the students, some of ALCA’s teachers and counselors also work remotely in areas all over the state.
Kristi Kadel is a 16-year-old sophomore enrolled in ALCA. Even though — based on her address — she would normally be zoned to attend a brick-and-mortar school in the Mobile County Public School System (MCPSS), Kristi opted to attend school online after moving from Iowa.
“We think it’s a good fit for her, and her grades have just been phenomenal,” Kristi’s father, Roy Kadel, told Lagniappe. “She’s taking two classes through The University of Alabama’s Early College, and by the end of December, Kristi will have almost 11 hours of college credit.”
There wasn’t a specific reason his family leaned toward virtual school, but Kadel said he and his wife have been very involved with Kristi’s online education. In fact, all ALCA parents are required to submit reports on their child’s progress and the time they spend on their work.
Kristi said the biggest difference she’s noticed between her online experience and traditional public schooling is the individualized attention from teachers. She noted that during a live session or working on her own, she can ask her teacher a question and receive immediate feedback.
Because her schedule can also vary depending on how quickly she moves through her work, Kristi is able to move through the material at her own pace and find time for her college courses.
“I’ll have a certain number of days to complete an assignment, and I tend to do a lot on the first day everything is due, so the next day I’ll have more free time and to work on my UA classes or move on to something else,” she said. “I do have a certain schedule for live classes, and if you have a question about something, the teacher can also meet with you in live lesson by yourself.”
According to Kristi, the live sessions are similar to a Skype chat. Teachers can also see what’s on students’ computer screens to make sure they’re following along, a feature school administrators and even parents can also access.
According to Principal Jodi Dean, the reasons for enrolling and the overall ALCA experience can vary from student to student. She says there really is “no one-size-fits-all” approach to effective education.
“You could look at all 2,030 of our students and just about every one of them has come here for a different reason and has a different setup to their educational track. It’s an individualized program that’s tailored to every student to fit whatever it is they’re needing at the time. There’s 100 different ways that we’ve seen students and families be successful.”
ALCA students had to take the Scantron assessment and the ACT exam in 2017 like all other students, but the state has yet to release those results. When they are tallied, ALCA will be subject to the same accountability standards as any other school system in Alabama.
Dean said students have to take those standardized tests in person, but because they are proctored by ALCA teachers working remotely, students don’t have to travel all the way to the school’s headquarters in Athens, Alabama. Instead, testing centers are set up around the state.
“Most students won’t have to travel more than 45 minutes from home,” Dean said.
Dean, previously the principal at New Mexico’s Connections Academy, was brought in to help get ALCA off the ground when it launched last year. However, virtual schools are a relatively new concept in Alabama and, like anything new, haven’t come without some controversy.
In 2014, MCPSS opened Alabama’s first online school, the Envision Virtual Academy. However, unlike ALCA and similar online programs run through city school systems in Eufaula and Athens, Envision primarily serves local students.
Kadel said his family considered enrolling Kristi in Envision, which he called “a very, very fine program.” However, he said, she had a friend who was already taking classes through ALCA.
Representatives from MCPSS did not immediately respond to requests seeking comments on this report, but state enrollment reports indicate Envision currently serves around 193 students, a slight decline from previous years. To the contrary, virtual schools pulling students from across the state have continued to grow.
Athens City Schools had close to 5,000 virtual students last year, while Eufaula instructed more than 3,785 students online.
Increased online enrollment has been a concern for some in education circles because, in Alabama, tax dollars follow the student. That means school systems receive the same state and federal allocations for each student whether they physically come to school or sign in hundreds of miles away. Prominent virtual schools, including ALCA, also advertise around the state to attract new students.
However, Dean rejected the notion that virtual schools enrolling out-of-district students are creating a problem for any one school system. She noted the 100-plus students from Mobile County enrolled at ALCA only make up around 0.3 percent of MCPSS’ total student population.
“We have 2,030 total students, but that’s from across all of the counties in the state of Alabama,” she said. “When you break that apart, it’s a very small percentage for each district.”
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