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For most students, returning to the classroom means sitting in a brick-and-mortar building, but for an increasing number, heading back to school means logging in to classes from home.

As of its first day of classes for the 2019-20 school year on Tuesday, 1,725 students in Arkansas, including 51 from Garland County, were enrolled in Arkansas Connections Academy, a tuition-free online public charter school with a total staff of 64 that includes 55 teachers.

"We are growing every single day," ARCA Principal Darla Gardner said.

The program premiered in 2016 with 229 students in grades kindergarten through ninth grade. One grade level has been added each year since 2016, and 2020 will mark ARCA's first graduating class of seniors.

"We're very excited about that. Right now, we have right at 140 seniors enrolled," Gardner said.

Students' reasons for choosing to attend online public school versus a traditional public school vary, Gardner said, from medical issues that make physically attending classes difficult or impossible, high-level competitive student-athletes who need a particular schedule to accommodate training, the need to travel often for parents' jobs, the desire to work ahead and graduate early or simply needing "extra supports."

"Really, for every student you talk to, there's a different reason to attend," she said.

Length of time spent at ARCA also varies from student to student. Oftentimes students attend "for a short period of time," but others stay "long term," Gardner said.

As with any school, certain supplies are essential for ARCA students. To accommodate this need, kindergarten through eighth-graders receive a shipment of materials, including physical textbooks, which they return at the end of the school year. Ninth through 12th-graders have no physical supplies at all since all classwork is accomplished online.

Typical lesson structures at ARCA are "very similar to lessons in a brick-and-mortar school, it's just virtual," Gardner said, noting students' grades are on par with those of traditional public schools.

However, ARCA offers something those institutions cannot.

"The biggest advantage has got to be the flexibility and the one on one attention that students are able to receive with their teacher," Gardner said.

Lessons can be viewed via a livestream, or through prerecorded sessions if students miss the live lesson as their schedule allows. All assignments are submitted digitally, as well.

"With the flexibility and our environment, our teachers do have opportunities to have one on one lessons as needed, small group lessons, and whole class lessons," Gardner said.

Hot Springs sophomore ARCA student Connor Hough said this aspect of the program was what caused him to switch from being home-schooled by his parents to an online public school.

"I'm not sure I'd go so far as to say it's better than public school. I'd say it's certainly different. But for people that want to work from home, but still want to be able to interact with their peers and teachers, I certainly think this is a better option," Hough said.

"I like the flexibility. Because I'm able to work from home, I get to be with my family and have more time with them, but still get done all the work I would get done at a public school," Hough said.

He has been an ARCA student since 2016, and said the experience has "overall just been a better option."

Though ARCA students are not physically in a classroom, they must still follow the same state attendance requirement for all public schools, which states that they must have at least 30 hours of class. Students are also required to participate in all the same standardized state testing that traditional public school students are subject to.

It's not all work, though, as Gardner said that ARCA coordinates multiple field trips around the state, holds a prom for its students each year and plans to host its inaugural graduation ceremony in Little Rock.

The last day of classes for ARCA students is May 29, 2020.

Local on 08/19/2019

Print Headline: Online public school enrollment on the rise

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