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Virtual Learning for Student Retention: 5 Lessons Learned in North Carolina’s Nash-Rocky Mount School District

Virtual Learning for Student Retention: 5 Lessons Learned in North Carolina’s Nash-Rocky Mount School District

Every student is unique, and increasingly, students are proactively identifying their own learning preferences and demanding options that meet those needs. For traditional public school districts, this means that educators have to get creative in order to keep students enrolled.

This was the conclusion that administrators in Nash-Rocky Mount Public Schools (NRMPS), a district serving just over 15,000 students in the regional center of Rocky Mount, North Carolina, came to over the past several years as they saw students leave for charter schools, private schools, and homeschooling. District leaders knew that some students needed a more flexible alternative, and this past fall, for the 2018–19 school year, NRMPS partnered with Edmentum’s EdOptions Academy to open its very own Nash-Rocky Mount Virtual Academy. So far, it’s off to a pretty great start—the program’s success is even making it into the news! Check out these enrollment numbers and look at these NRMPS Virtual Academy statistics:

  • In its first year, the NRMPS Virtual Academy enrolled a total of 44 students
  • 25 of those students had previously left the district or came from neighboring districts
  • 19 students who were already enrolled in the district but struggling in traditional classrooms switched to the NRMPS Virtual Academy

How did the Nash-Rocky Mount Virtual Academy achieve this kind of success in just one year? Recently, we spoke with Chad Thompson, NRMPS executive director of high schools, and Danny Plyler, director of instructional technology and virtual learning, to learn about five keys to the district’s virtual program implementation success over the past year

1. Flexibility Is Key

Some students have scheduling conflicts, some are challenged with social anxiety or bullying, and others simply struggle to stay engaged in the traditional classroom environment. By allowing students to choose how many and which subjects they take as virtual courses, the NRMPS Virtual Academy has been able to meet the needs of a broader population of learners.

“We give [students] the option of being completely virtual, where they take all of their core classes online or in a blended fashion where we’ve had some [students] that have taken two or three [classes] at home and then one or two on the campus. We can give them as much flexibility as they want or need.” – Danny Plyler

2. A Rigorous Application Process Helps

Virtual learning is a great fit for some students, but it’s not the answer for everyone, and it certainly isn’t an “easy way out.” NRMPS administrators understood that they had to make sure that interested students understood the real commitment that virtual learning takes, demonstrated motivation to participate for the right reasons, and showed a history of demonstrating skills required for success.

“Once students send an initial interest form, then they fill out an application to be entered in to the Virtual Academy, and then, at that point, all of that information comes to the district office where we vet out where they are at, what the needs are, and of course, what are the reasons they are wanting or needing the Virtual Academy. We try to take as much data as possible.” –Danny Plyler

3. Extracurricular Options Matter

Students taking courses through the NRMPS Virtual Academy are officially enrolled in one of the district’s four traditional high schools. This allows students to remain connected to some of the positive social elements of the “high school experience,” including athletic teams, performing arts groups, and other student organizations. This format helps the district ensure that students can take full advantage of the flexibility and benefits of online learning without sacrificing the connections developed through traditional classroom experiences.

“It’s not only sports, it’s also clubs. . . . The social piece also is important. If [students] want to do it, definitely, we will provide the opportunity for them to be involved.” – Danny Plyler

4. Mentoring Makes a Difference

For the NRMPS Virtual Academy, one of the biggest challenges over the past school year was ensuring that students received the regular check-ins and support they needed to be successful in their virtual courses. This year, the district relied on guidance counselors at brick-and-mortar schools to provide this support. Going forward, NRMPS plans to add full-time staff at the district level to serve as dedicated administrative support and instructional coaches for NRMPS Virtual Academy students and to partner more closely with students’ virtual teachers provided by EdOptions Academy.

“Probably the biggest lesson is making sure that we have a coach or mentor that contacts the students as often as possible to check on progress.” – Danny Plyler

5. Becoming a PR Expert Has Influence

Today’s students have an almost overwhelming volume of options when it comes to their education; it’s up to schools and districts to clearly define their own approach and value so that students can make an informed choice. The NRMPS Virtual Academy team has done an outstanding job of being proactive by speaking with local media outlets, establishing a presence at community events, and utilizing Facebook advertisements to share its own story and catch notice of students who are the right fit.

“We did a few thingsof course, our local paper. And, then we also have a local TV station here in the district, so they can be seen throughout the community, and we did a segment on that. We also sent out [the announcement] over our district webpage, and then we have promotion cards that have been handed out at local events.” – Chad Thompson

Getting a virtual program off the ground is no small feat, but the benefits in terms of student retention can certainly make that hard work worthwhile. Check out Edmentum’s Virtual Learning workbook for more interactive planning and implementation guidance and for learning more about our fully accredited virtual school solution, EdOptions Academy!