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Students take learning online with NC Connections Academy

By Maggie Blackwell

news@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — About 200 Rowan County students are experiencing a new and flexible kind of school. It’s not a traditional brick-and-mortar school, and it’s not a home school, either.

North Carolina Connections Academy, a state-funded virtual charter school, is available free to all kindergarten through 12th-grade students in the state. Teachers teach, students learn, and no one stands in line or waits while someone is disciplined for disrupting the class.

Nathan Currie is the superintendent of the statewide program. Currie, a Salisbury resident, says Rowan County had only 17 students in the school in 2015-16, its first year. Currently, there are 75.

The program projects 200 for 2018-19. With 1,768 students across the state, Rowan County is one of the fastest-growing areas.

While the state requires a minimum of 1,025 instructional hours per student, data shows that N.C. Connections students are logging more time than required. Currie suggests two reasons: students are more engaged, and they don’t get snow days.

Zechariah Booker, a fifth-grader in the virtual school, says he had lots of distractions in traditional school.

“I had a lot of friends in school, but they were distractions. Now I’m getting good grades. When I was hanging around with them, I was getting bad grades,” Zechariah said.

Zechariah and his brother Isaiah, who also is in the academy, just made the “B” honor roll. While most students take classes in their homes, Zechariah and Isaiah go to their church, United Christian Fellowship.

Daniel Merrell, a seventh-grader, says he wasn’t learning in his other school. His grandmother learned about N.C. Connections and suggested it, noting that it is free. Daniel gave it a try and really likes it. He’s taking ninth-grade math.

Hannah McIntyre, an eighth-grader, has her own reasons.

“I switched because I was having trouble with math,” Hannah said. “I like staying home. I like studying in my pajamas.”

Flexibility is another motivator for students. Rachel Newman is a sixth-grader who takes dance classes in two cities. Each studio is an hour away from home.

“I like the flexibility and the schedule so I can progress in my dance,” she said. “Maybe I also like if someone is not behaving, the class isn’t slowed down by the teacher’s actions; they just get an email. So no one is distracted.”

As to flexibility, Currie points out that all live session classes are recorded so students can take them after the fact if necessary. Recorded sessions also allow a student to repeat the lesson if he doesn’t understand the first time.

An added bonus is he doesn’t have to disclose to the rest of the class that he doesn’t understand. He just plays the session over in the privacy of his home – or contacts the teacher privately.

Rachel has a mandatory live lesson on Wednesdays for her AIG English class. She logs into the classroom and clicks to enter. The teacher gives her a green light and enables Rachel’s microphone and camera. At that point, Rachel can raise her hand or enter the chat pod.

Taking school at home or your church obviously takes less time when you don’t have to get in a line to use the restroom or go to lunch. Rachel, Zechariah, Daniel and Hannah all enjoy studying and finishing earlier. Hannah says she is learning more quickly now that she does not have distractions in the room.

One popular criticism for students who study at home is socialization. Connections Academy offers a wide range of field trips, open to students across the state and their families. This is the only service with a fee.

Local students have visited Carrigan Farms and Biltmore, traveled to the N.C. Zoo in Asheboro, experienced “The Nutcracker” in Charlotte, and bounced at Defy Gravity in Charlotte. Field trips, dates, times and costs are listed on a school bulletin board.

Students and families can register online and meet at the venue. That way, students from cities across the state can get to know one another. Good behavior while in class is a requirement for students to attend.

Currie said the school offered 47 field trips this school year. Families who can’t afford a field trip can notify the school by email and discreetly receive a discount or scholarship to attend. Rather than inviting one grade, all students at all levels are invited. There’s a prom planned for high schoolers next month in the Raleigh-Durham area.

Students can qualify for the National Honor Society or join the chess club and sports clubs. They convene from across the state to participate.

Daniel says the school offers a virtual library with all the books for required reading as well as textbooks and reference books. He enjoyed taking Educational Tech and says he learned a lot in the class.

Currie says a total of 27 electives are offered for high school and middle school, including Mandarin Chinese, French, Spanish and coding. Thirteen of the electives are not offered in traditional schools. One example is barine biology.

Honors and AP classes are offered.

Connections Academy teachers carry an average of 10 years’ experience, and more than half of them have advanced degrees.

The students are all advocates of the program. Daniel points out he doesn’t have to go out in bad weather.

“Also, there are tutors and you can set up lessons with your own teachers if you need help,” he said. “There are additional resources, Powerpoints and things to help. If you are still unsure, you can call a teacher. Different teachers have different office hours.”

The kids agree the teachers are responsive every time they reach out for help. Currie says teachers are expected to respond within one hour if contacted during their office hours.

“If they’re contacted over the weekend,” he smiles, “they don’t have to follow the one-hour rule. Everyone needs time off work.”

“I love when you do your work, you have time to really get your stuff done and go back over it,” Zechariah adds. “If you don’t finish an assessment or quiz, you can come back to finish it the next day. You always have time to get everything complete.

“I would recommend it to others because in traditional school you might have a lot of distractions. Some kids don’t understand that others want to learn. At NCCA, you are ready for the next grade and you are learning more.”

 

To attend N.C. Connections Academy, a student must have access to a computer and the internet. Those who need help acquiring them can apply for subsidies from the school.

For more information, visit www.connectionsacademy.com/north-carolina-virtual-school or call 919-224-4040.

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