Education

First virtual charter schools open in NC

Posted August 25, 2015

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— As students return to school across North Carolina, some are going online to attend a charter school for the first time.

North Carolina Connections Academy and North Carolina Virtual Academy opened as part of a four-year pilot program to determine whether virtual charters can succeed in the state.

Connections Academy Principal Nathan Currie said students meet with their instructors through live online sessions.

"Students are working at their own pace. The curriculum is there 24/7, so they can access it at night or on the weekend," Currie said. "This virtual setting is just an accommodation for students who can learn virtually, who can multitask."

Sixth-grade English teacher Elizabeth Garg is still getting used to working out of a cubicle – one of more than 50 lining a floor at a Durham office park where she and other Connections Academy teachers guide their students remotely.

"It's different. It's smaller," Garg said.

Zahra Lewis is already taking advantage of the new option. After a few semesters in traditional schools, she decided to homeschool her two children last year but found it difficult to balance their curriculum with her full-time job.

"The virtual school was a happy medium between what they were doing prior and the homeschool," Lewis said.

Parents of enrolled students are considered "learning coaches" and act as a liaison between the teacher and the student.

Leanne Winner, director of government relations for the North Carolina School Boards Association, said that could be a problem.

"That's a really important role. They aren't necessarily trained to do that," Winner said.

A Stanford University study of charter schools in Pennsylvania found that all of the virtual charter schools there performed worse in math and reading scores than traditional schools. Some schools have failed in other states and closed.

Currie said there are challenges for a school like his, particularly student retention, but he noted that none of the Connections Academy schools across the country has closed. He said virtual schools offer something special, and he hopes they stick around in North Carolina.

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