BY MELANIE WADE –
The Mena School District held the first of a series of public meetings on Thursday, July 13, to hear input from community members on the subject of a virtual online school they have applied for through the Arkansas State Department of Education. Less than two dozen were in attendance at the meeting comprise of mostly administration, faculty members, one school board member, and a handful of community citizens.
Mena Superintendent Benny Weston began the meeting, explaining what a virtual school is, and why the district is eyeing such a possibility for the community. Weston said the state encourages schools to be innovative, such as their new cafeteria system, the alternative education hub, the virtual reality system at Mena Middle School, and a new ‘blended learning’ system that will begin with 9th graders this year. “In order to reach all learners, we have to do something to benefit them,” said Weston. “We are entering an ‘any time, any pace, any place’ educational experience,” which are exactly the benefits a virtual school provides and works much like a charter school.
Mena has applied for a Conversion Charter School, which would allow students to fall under the district’s umbrella, but they would not have to attend the ‘brick and mortar’ schools, they instead would attend the Polk County Virtual Academy, a non-traditional approach to education.
A virtual school consists of online classes that can be completed anywhere, as long as the student has internet access and a device to log on with. Lessons can be watched through videos, homework can be completed and submitted online, and students can work at their own pace. “Today, folks are graduating college without ever stepping foot on a campus,” Weston said.
That same philosophy is now being placed on secondary education as well. As many parents and students choose homeschooling methods for a vast number of reasons, many would like additional assistance from the school. However, by state laws, unless the student falls under a district’s ‘umbrella,’ they are not allowed to provide assistance, only to the students who attend their ‘brick and mortar’ schools. Under a virtual school plan, which would be called the Polk County Virtual School, those students could enroll into Mena’s district, and still maintain their own schedule. Assistant Superintendent Jeannie Smith explained, “Some students may take an entire twelve months to complete the 4th grade, but others may take six months to complete the 4th and 5th grades.”
They would also be allowed to take part in the district’s extracurricular activities and clubs, use the library, receive tutoring, and much more. “There is a need for an alternative education outside of our brick and mortar schools,” said Smith, “How can we get them back under our umbrella and offer them a quality education?”
The Mena Public School District has seen a downward trend in student population over the last decade, losing 286 students since 2007, or 14.3% of the student population in grades K-12. When the School Choice Act of 2013 was passed, allowing students to apply to attend their district of choice, Mena School District lost 65 of those 286 students the following year.
According to the Arkansas Department of Education’s Data Center, in the 2006-2007 school year, Mena Public Schools had a student population of 2002. Ten years later, in the 2016-2017 school year, that number had dropped to 1716 students.
Smith, along with Jimma Holder, Louise Durham Principal, and Paulette Sherrer, explained that for many reasons, parents are choosing to homeschool their children, with 133 currently in the district that use this method. All three ladies said they are quite often approached with questions, and often times, they are restricted by guidelines and are unable answer or provide the assistance. “Our goals [with the virtual school] are to provide personalized learning and extend the offer of all of our services that traditional students have such as band, library, drama,” said Smith.
If approved by the state, which could take several months, the school would launch in the 2018-2019 school year. For the first year, only 25 students would be allowed into the program, with a progression to follow each year. Each student would be provided with a chromebook, and for those that cannot afford internet services, a ‘hot spot’ would be provided for them as well.
The curriculum for Polk County Virtual Academy would be provided by a vendor that abides by state standards of education just like any other public school. Smith explained they are currently researching four providers that offer Arkansas standards. Members of the faculty in attendance asked questions and expressed concerns.
State and federal funding per student would be received by the district, just as if they attended the ‘brick and mortar schools.’ Those funds would be used to purchase the curriculum and provide the technology needed. The district’s ten-year trend of declining enrollment translates to an approximate $1.9 million loss of revenue in state funding alone.
“There is a paradigm shift happening in the world. We have to be wise and ask ourselves, is there anything we can do to reach these kids,” said Weston. The Polk County Virtual School could be the answer.