Inside One School District's Virtual Classroom

Four hundred students, from elementary to high school, participate in the district's virtual program, up from 22 in its first year.

Four hundred students, from elementary to high school, participate in the district's virtual program, up from 22 in its first year. Shutterstock

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In West Virginia, state law allows K-12 schools to offer virtual curriculum while maintaining their levels of per-pupil funding.

When the new school year began two weeks ago in Kanawha County, West Virginia, 400 of the district’s 26,000 students went back to class—by waking up and logging onto their iPads.

Those students, from elementary to high school, are participants in the Kanawha County Public Schools virtual curriculum, an option established by a state law passed in 2017. Under the terms of the legislation, county school districts are permitted to offer their students a full-time K-12 virtual education and “an online pathway” to earn a diploma while still receiving the full per-pupil state funding for each student who elects to participate.

Kanawha was the first school district in West Virginia to opt in, offering the curriculum first as a pilot program to 22 high-school students. It then expanded to 225 pupils, including middle school students, and now includes a pilot program for third through fifth graders. In total, 400 students are currently enrolled. They can take some or all of their classes remotely, offering the same education as a traditional school curriculum without the need to set foot inside a school building.

Inclusion was the main driver for the district’s participation, said Valery Harper, director of the virtual curriculum for Kanawha County Public Schools. 

“We just know that right now it’s a changing time,” she said. “We need to offer new opportunities and ways for students to receive their education.”

Students take advantage of the program for a wide variety of reasons, Harper said. Some live in rural areas where it’s easier to hop online than to travel to a physical building miles away. Others have familial obligations or mental health conditions that make it easier to learn from home.

“We have students that travel for athletics or for medical procedures,” she said. “We had one student who had a family member that was really ill and they needed to help with home care. Another student has to work during the day to make ends meet for their family. I have some, you’ll be surprised to learn, that just don’t like going to school. No matter the reason, this is an opportunity to prevent students from being truant, prevent them from dropping out, and provide an alternate way to keep them in school, keep them learning and find something they’re interested in pursuing after high school.”

The district leases its curriculum from the Florida Virtual School. All virtual students receive an iPad from the school district to use for their lessons and also have access to in-person tutoring. The school district pays the state department of education a per-student fee to cover the expenses of teaching personnel and the virtual platform. That fee is less than the per-pupil funding the district receives from the state, Harper said.

The district ensures compliance by monitoring virtual students’ assignments on a weekly basis to make sure they’re not falling behind. If a participant fails to turn in work, they’re required to visit a school lab and receive in-person assistance. 

“What we’ve found is that once we get them to the lab they want to continue doing it, which is a neat thing,” Harper said. “They seem to understand how well it works for them.”

The program hasn’t faced much opposition in the district, though some people had concerns that virtual learners would suffer from a lack of social interaction. To guard against isolation, students who enroll in the virtual curriculum are permitted to participate in school activities, including dances, athletics and clubs, and they walk across the stage at graduation and receive the same diploma as traditional students. But even without those provisions, most would be fine —the vast majority of Kanawha County’s online students participated in some type of social activity outside of school last year, Harper said.

“Ninety-one percent of our kids are involved in some sort of sport, community organization, church or local group,” she said. “They’re doing things. It’s just not always in the schools”

Thus far, the curriculum has been successful for participants. Nationwide, the success rate of online K-12 learning—that is, the number of students who pass their courses—hovers between 45 and 60 percent. Last year in Kanawha County, 91 percent of high school students and 85 percent of middle school students passed their courses.

“I’m very happy with the program—just being able to meet the families, the parents, the students, and see what their needs are and make that happen for them,” Harper said. “There are so many times parents tell me how much happier their child is at home. I’m pleased with how it’s growing but I’m more pleased with how we’re able to meet the needs of our families. That’s our no. 1 goal.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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