Starting a Virtual Program: What Worked and What Didn’t for Shikellamy School District
Starting a Virtual Program: What Worked and What Didn’t for Shikellamy School District
Creating a virtual program is a big undertaking with lots of moving pieces to consider. But, the benefits, both in terms of meeting student needs and retaining enrollment, can make the endeavor well worth it for schools and districts. Shikellamy School District, in Sunbury, Pennsylvania, is one district that recently took the leap, partnering with EdOptions Academy to provide flexible virtual learning options for students. Two years in, district is not looking back, as the Shikellamy Virtual Academy has reached previously struggling students and helped recover more than $500,000 in funding. However, as with any major project, getting the virtual program to where it is today was a complicated process and not without challenges.
We spoke with Eric Attinger, the district’s virtual academy coordinator, and asked him to share (taking advantage of 20/20 hindsight) three things that he and his team did really well, as well as three lessons they learned in the process of getting the virtual program up and running.
Virtual Program Implementation: 3 Things That Worked
- Running the Shikellamy Virtual Academy as a program within the traditional high school
Instead of creating Shikellamy Virtual Academy as a separate entity, Eric and the Shikellamy School District administrative team chose to run it as a program within the district’s existing brick-and-mortar high school. This streamlines administration and student data management for the program because the virtual academy can utilize support staff already in place at the high school, including guidance counselors, front office staff, and the school nurse. Keeping middle school and high school building administrators involved also ensures that the needs of individual students are known and addressed when they choose to participate in the virtual academy. This model provides greater continuity for students in the program, as they are able to continue using the same guidance counselor and to maintain access to social and extracurricular activities like field trips, dances, sports teams, and clubs offered through the high school.
“A lot of time, it makes your answer easier if [students or parents] ask how [a process] works in the virtual academy. It works the same as it does in the high school, except for the content.”
- Creating a website to serve as a one-stop shop for virtual program info
One of the first things Eric did after the district approved creation of the Virtual Academy was to build a page for the program within the district’s website. Eric treats this webpage as hub for all information pertinent to students already in Shikellamy Virtual Academy, as well as those students and parents who are considering participating. It acts as a bulletin board for the program, providing space to post news and updates in real time and includes links to the sites that virtual academy students need to work in every day, like their EdOptions Academy course login and email. Important program information like semester schedules, testing dates, course lists, and student policy documents is also included. In addition, they provide contact information not only for Eric and the rest of his program staff but also for the district IT helpdesk and EdOptions Academy customer support. Especially for students working independently and on their own schedules at home, easy access to these contacts for troubleshooting and support is critical.
Having such a comprehensive website makes it easy for Shikellamy Virtual Academy students and staff to know where to look for answers when they have questions, and it is a valuable resource for prospective students to get a feel for what participation in the program entails and to see if it would be a good fit.
“It’s very easy for me to say to a parent when I meet with them, ‘Here’s all the information we have, and then if you want any more information, you can always visit our virtual website.’”
- Providing a lab for virtual program students to work with on-site instructional aides
The flexibility that Shikellamy Virtual Academy provides is one of its primary benefits to students. However, flexibility should not come at the sacrifice of support, and that’s where the program’s on-site lab has made a huge difference. Providing a physical space within a district building, staffed by trained instructional aides and available to students during the standard school day, has provided an element of structure and collaboration that’s key to success for many students in the program.
In-person time with Eric and his program staff helps build strong relationships, address any challenges with virtual learning early on, and make conversations about future academic and career goals ongoing. Instructional aides in the lab provide an extra layer of academic support in addition to students’ EdOptions Academy virtual teachers for on-the-spot assistance working through course content. At the same time, the lab acts as a valuable social outlet for students to spend time with their peers, share their learning, and help one another. Being on-site also gives students easy access to district support services like technology helpdesk and cafeteria meals, and it gives parents a sense of comfort, especially those who work full time or have younger students in the program.
“The parents like that it’s a safe space for their child to be.”
Virtual Program Implementation: 3 Lessons Learned
- Develop a comprehensive vetting process for students interested in the virtual program
When Shikellamy School District first launched its virtual academy, some students were attracted simply by the “new” factor or saw it as an easy way out to avoid hard work in the classroom. Initially, the program saw rapid student enrollment, hitting 100 students within its first couple of months. However, about 30 of those students left the program soon afterward because it wasn’t the right fit for them. Eric and his team quickly saw the need for a clear vetting process to make sure that Shikellamy Virtual Academy enrolled the right students.
Now, the district has created a system where any students interested in the program must first meet with their principal and provide a legitimate reason, such as anxiety or attention issues, scheduling conflicts, or social concerns. At that point, principals pass on candidates to Eric and his staff, who talk further with students about virtual program logistics and time-management skills before enrolling them. Some students complete a two-week trial period before officially enrolling to prove that they can handle the independence of the virtual program and ensure that it will be a good fit. Putting this vetting process into place has helped make the best use of time for students and administrators, kept lines of communication open between virtual program and traditional school administrators, and supported student success in the program.
“This year, we started the vetting process right from the get-go, and it’s been very beneficial. Our numbers are still great . . . we’re helping the right students, and our students are staying in the program.”
- Establish a clear attendance policy for virtual program students
Virtual academy attendance is another logistical element that Eric and his team quickly realized required some clear parameters in order for students to thrive. When the program launched, administrators across the virtual academy, the high school, and the middle school had not reached consensus on how attendance would be tracked, making it difficult to set clear expectations with students and ensure that they stayed on track. Throughout Shikellamy Virtual Academy’s first year, the administrative team went through multiple attendance plans but, ultimately, landed on an approach that is based on pacing, which aligns with how EdOptions Academy courses are structured.
As long as students are on pace in their online courses, they are considered attending—even if they don’t keep regular hours or log in every day. Once a student starts to fall behind pace in one or more courses, the virtual academy team starts making regular calls to check in and find out what support is needed to get the student back on pace. If that outreach does not solve the problem, the team begins tracking daily attendance, requiring the student to log in for at least three hours per day until he or she is back on pace. Having a well-defined attendance policy in place from the beginning helps students understand what they are expected to do in their virtual courses and provides accountability keep them on track.
“Make sure that all administrators and everybody involved agrees on an attendance policy and you can set that in stone right away.”
- Make sure that parents/guardians understand their role in providing student accountability
Parents and other caregivers are a critical piece of puzzle to achieve academic success for any student, and they are especially important for those working independently in a program like Shikellamy Virtual Academy. When they first started out, Eric and his staff found that many families didn’t understand what their role was in supporting a student in virtual courses or how important their involvement was. All students’ caregivers had access to an EdOptions Academy parent login to track their child’s progress, but many weren’t aware of this or comfortable with using the technology. Others thought that virtual teachers and program staff would take care of making sure that their child stayed on track.
Virtual Academy staff realized that getting parents on board and setting clear expectations with them was just as important as setting clear expectations with students. Now, Eric and his team get in touch with families right away when a new student enrolls and talks to them about how they can support their learner, and the team continues to check in on a regular basis throughout the semester. The team has found it beneficial to emphasize to parents that, just because their child is taking a virtual course, they don’t need to be a technology expert; they simply need to be engaged in their child’s learning to provide oversight, accountability, and encouragement.
“Check in regularly and remind the parents that they are an education coach just like [program administrators] are, just like [students’] teachers are, and that they should play an active role.”
Want to learn more about Shikellamy’s Virtual Academy? Watch this recorded webinar to hear directly from Eric about how his virtual program is supporting student success and how it has already brought over $500,000 in funding back to Shikellamy School District!