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Pictures, tweets, and YouTube videos are not the only things going viral nowadays.
You can now add an online public school education to the list of trending topics on the World Wide Web.
Welcome to the era of free online school.
Connections Academy is an online, tuition-free public school that serves students in grades K-12 in 22 states via 24 virtual schools. Three of those schools are located in California, including California Connections Academy at Ripon (CalCAR).
CalCAR is open to students residing in San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties, as well as Alameda, Amador, Calaveras, Contra Costa, Sacramento, and Santa Clara.
Elementary and high school students study the same subjects they would in a traditional public school. The only difference is they do so via computers from their homes. Learning materials come in the form of live, webinar-style lessons and online assessments, as well as traditional textbooks, trade books, science experiments, and the like.
Students are encouraged to maintain open communication with their teachers through emails, phone calls, and face-to-face meetings. The school also schedules weekly gatherings and field trips to foster a relationship between the students and instructors.
“[Teachers] feel like they’ve made better connections with families and students online and meeting them at the field trips and one-on-one events than they ever did in the classroom,” said CalCAR Founding Principal Don Ogden.
Connections Academy has been operating for a little more than 10 years; the San Joaquin County-centered CalCAR location – authorized under state law by the Ripon Unified School District as a nonprofit – launched just last year with a total enrollment of 283 students. That figure, according to Ogden, is expected to grow significantly this year.
The most obvious difference between CalCAR and a traditional, brick-and-mortar public school is the virtual component – something that Ogden said affords students, and their parents, flexibility and customization.
“When we run a program, we individualize it to the student, rather than a student enrolling in our school and coming into the classroom, and where the class is, is where that student is,” he said. “We sort of flip that model on its head. We meet the student where they are and create a program that matches their needs and their aspirations.”
Mick Founts, Superintendent of the San Joaquin County Office of Education, recognizes online learning as a beneficial alternative to traditional schooling
“Online learning has definitely changed from back in the old days when it was just a PDF of a textbook, and you read it and answered the questions,” Founts said. “That’s not what it looks like anymore. A lot of it is very interactive. I think it gives kids a chance who need that extra reflective time or want to be able to do some independent research along with what they’re studying.”
CalCAR, which is accredited by both AdvancED and the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, boasts a plethora of elective courses. These include honors and advanced placement (AP) classes, foreign language (such as Chinese and Japanese), art, technology, and most recently, a music program offered through a partnership with The Julliard School in New York.
Ogden said these options are what make Connections Academy a cut above the rest.
“We’re able to offer programming that meets them where they are and takes them where they want to go,” he said.
CalCAR believes it breaks the one-size-fits-all model for education
“We’re dealing with students nowadays that are very differentiated in the skills that they bring to school and the desires that they have upon graduation,” Ogden said.
And so far, this 21st century approach to public education appears to be receiving high marks.
The 2012-2013 CalCAR parent satisfaction survey revealed that 88 percent of parents gave the overall online program an ‘A’ or ‘B’ ranking.
This is significantly higher than the findings of a separate national 2012 Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll that surveyed the public’s opinion toward public schools in general. According to the results, 77 percent of respondents assigned an ‘A’ or ‘B’ letter grade to the public school their oldest child attended.
One highly satisfied parent of CalCAR is Irene Burgess. The Stockton mom currently has three children enrolled in the online school.
She switched her children from traditional to virtual schooling after illness and stress posed a truancy issue for her eldest son. The at-home model, Burgess said, completely solved the issue.
“Our family dynamics are so much better,” she said. “My kids are so much less stressed. They appreciate that they are able to sit down and concentrate on whatever lesson or program or project they are working on.”
Burgess believes the online format would also work well for children who are facing bullying or health issues, not to mention busy students trying to balance sports and extracurricular activities.
Convenience aside, this CalCAR mother said the school’s curriculum is top-notch.
“Each child, regardless of which way they’re learning – whether it’s kinesthetic, auditory, or visual – within every single lesson, they’re touching on those three learning techniques, so the children are going to learn the information regardless of their learning technique,” she said.
“My children are getting a fabulous education,” she added. “Just from going over the lesson plans with them, and the information they learn, there’s no doubt in my mind they’re getting a great education.”
The 2013-2014 academic year at CalCAR starts Sept. 3, but enrollment is available all year long. The school is also currently looking to fill teaching positions in math, special education, and elementary education.