Following its Back-To-School Bash last month at Magic Springs Theme and Water Park, Arkansas Connections Academy students were back in Hot Springs where they enjoyed a field trip at Mid-America Science Museum on Oct. 7.
Arkansas Connections Academy is one of five virtual charter schools in the state to be approved by the Arkansas Board of Education to serve students statewide. Though the students attend school online, the academy hosts periodic functions throughout the school year that allow them to learn and have fun with other virtual students from the program.
Sarah Heath, an ACA teacher, said that around 100 students from Hot Springs and the surrounding area, along with their families, attended the field trip at Mid-America.
"They had their back-to-school field trip at Magic Springs earlier in September," she said. "We have four to five first semester, four to five second semester, and then we have our end-of-the-school-year field trip which will be at the Little Rock Zoo. Typically these are all free for the students. Families might just be (charged) a few dollars, or they may also be free; just depends on the location."
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The tuition-free, online public school for K-12 students started in 2016 with a focus on offering a "high-quality educational experience that keeps students motivated and engaged in a safe, virtual learning environment," according to its website.
Local parents of Arkansas Connections Academy students who attended the field trip, Jeff George and Brenda Boyer, said they love the idea of getting to enjoy the day as a family.
"This is their second year," Boyer said. "We love it. I love the freedom this gives us and being able to keep up with everything they're doing. If they make a bad grade, they're able to bring it up, and the teachers and staff are excited about it all the time, especially when they reach out."
She said the students love the fact they don't have to rush out the door and be at school by 8 a.m., but can get up and start their lessons when they are ready.
"And they really get into the lessons. All their needs are met and it's a really great option. Everything is really easy and it's nice being able to connect with the teachers and everything. It's really great," she said.
With a curriculum aligned to state and national standards, teachers also focus on their students' emotional well-being and social development, working closely with the families to ensure the students are learning the way they learn best.
"It's good because they get to work at their own pace," George said. "They get to kind of set their own schedule when they're comfortable and take breaks when they feel they need to. If they're not absorbing anything, they can go get a snack and come back to their schooling again. They seem to retain more that way.
"Not to mention, while I'm at work, I can still check up on them through the web-based program. I can go into the website and see what assignments they've completed today and the answers they've given. And after the teachers grade it, I can see which ones they got wrong and which ones they got correct. Everything's very visible. It's all transparent."
Heath noted the students who would normally qualify for free and reduced lunch are given a free computer they can use to complete their studies. Many of the older students, particularly those in 11th and 12th grades, do dual credit courses for college as well, she said.
Coming off the COVID-19 pandemic brought a large uptick in the number of students to enroll, with a total current student population of around 3,300 across the state.
"Just a tremendous opportunity for students in the state. ... Since we've been an online school and we're not a typical public school that had to transition, we were already online. So we have all of our system in place to where all of our teachers are tremendous at working online and having our students," Heath said.
"Yes, they work from home, but we're not a homeschool. We are fully accredited just like your normal, you know, district down the road. We are as well," she said.