Class in a laptop: Madison County school district expands virtual academy

Madison County school district expands virtual academy

MADISON COUNTY, Ala. (WAFF) - In August, students across the Valley will fall out of bed and go to school.

Some younger students will now have their “classroom” just feet away.

This year, Madison County Schools is expanding its virtual academy to grades three through six. The district has been operating a virtual academy for grades seven through 12 for the last three years.

The program condenses the daily course load of traditional students into 2-3 hours of online work for their virtual school counterparts.

Academy administrator Tandy Shumate said the expansion will help give some parents the flexibility they need.

“We serve very unique populations, and we’re blessed for that, because we can make about any situation work with a flexible schedule,” she said.

Shumate cited young mothers, health issues, and parental preferences as all reasons to expand the academy.

“We want to open that door for grades three through six, so they can get an accredited curriculum with highly qualified teachers,” she said.

Part of the program is a required in-class lab presence. The students are taught in groups by teachers throughout the week. The number of labs and the length of sessions varies by grade and student performance.

WAFF 48 News asked if the relative isolation of at-home learning could negatively impact the socialization of younger students.

Shumate said students enrolled in the academy will not be isolated from their peers, because the academy allows the children to participate in field trips, sports teams and organizes its own gatherings.

The tests are also administered in a class setting, limiting the possibility of too much at-home help.

“If they can’t pass the test and be successful, virtual is not for them,” Shumate said.

“So it will catch them on the end. Plagiarism happens all the time, and that’s what that would be.”

Madison County resident Chris Kern works with the district on its banking and is enrolling his 6th grade daughter Ysabel into the virtual academy.

He said his family is hoping the virtual school is a better fit than the potentially hectic school atmosphere.

“Class sizes are getting larger these days... and they’re a lot more social at this age,” he said.

“So just about everything going on in the classroom can be a distraction these days, and she struggles with that a little bit more.”

The program has four lab instructors for roughly 200 students (at the time of the interview, Shumate said roughly 12 of which were grades 3 through 6).

Shumate said the teachers are able to give individualized feedback, and are available for outside tutoring if needed.

“It has worked phenomenally for the last three years,” she said.

Kern said it’s too soon to say if his family will take advantage of the tutoring opportunities, but knowledge retention has been a struggle for Ysabel.

He said his family is hoping the different schedule could change that.

“You’ve got another two or three hours during that day, if you need to go back, and cover things and work on it again, and find those gaps where she’s struggling, and help her with those gaps, there’s still plenty of margin in your day to fit that in,” he said.

He said his family will be setting up “a structure” where time can be made for extracurriculars like art and music (her favorite artist is Post Malone), but also family time.

“We would rather fill those gaps with some of those other things, to help her grow more balanced,” he said.

Kern said the family does envision returning Ysabel to traditional school at some point, but the future largely depends on how her experience this year goes.

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