Finding Success with Virtual AcademyMar 15, 2021 ● By Amy Kryzak
When it became clear in March 2020 that the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year, and possibly beyond, would need to look much different than any other school year in recent history, Frisco Independent School District (FISD) administrators got to work and began piecing together virtual learning opportunities for all 60,000+ students in the district. To say it was a huge undertaking is an understatement. But Dr. Wes Cunningham, FISD chief academic officer, knew the district was up to the challenge. Regarding all the pivots and changes coming down the educational pipeline, Dr. Cunningham says he “can’t speak highly enough of our teachers, their response and willingness. We asked a lot of people to do a lot of new, innovative and creating things on the fly … and the way our teachers have responded has been nothing short of phenomenal.”
Indeed, it would take the entire district, from administrators to teachers and staff, working together to come up with a plan to keep education running smoothly. Pivoting to online learning for an entire school district certainly was not without its challenges. The early days of eLearning were difficult for many FISD families, many of whom were dealing with new at-home working conditions in addition to the introduction of at-home eLearning. However, the introduction of the official FISD Virtual Academy in September 2020 brought many welcome changes and relief to the online learning environment. Many parents say that the biggest change and advantage to the Virtual Academy is switching from the asynchronous environment of eLearning, where students were on their own to watch pre-recorded lesson videos and complete assignments, with all work being due en masse by the end of each week, to the synchronous environment of the Virtual Academy. The synchronous environment is highly structured, with students required to log in to their virtual classrooms at the beginning of each period, watch their lessons and lectures in real-time and submit assignments daily rather than weekly.
Local Frisco ISD parents Jerry and Jennifer Keating have three boys, Jason (tenth grade), Colin (eighth grade) and William (seventh grade), currently attending FISD Virtual Academy from their home. Jerry says the reason they chose to have their sons attend the Virtual Academy is due to the underlying health conditions that Jerry has that makes him more susceptible to a severe COVID-19 infection, and they are uncomfortable with not knowing the long-term physiological effects of contracting the virus. Jerry says that his sons have thrived in the FISD Virtual Academy due to several factors.
First, Mr. Keating attributes his sons’ Virtual Academy success to their previous familiarity with and access to technology. Like many school-aged kids these days, his sons have grown up around computers, tablets and other technologies, making the use of technology for various objectives second nature to them. Mr. Keating says this familiarity, coupled with his sons’ ages, helped smooth the transition from in-person school to a purely virtual environment. He stated another reason his sons have been successful with eLearning is that they are “largely self-sufficient and self-learners.” Mr. Keating works from home as a software consultant, so his children need to be able to stay on task and get their work done on their own. Apart from him or his wife playing the occasional “tech support” or “school counselor” role, he says his sons are independent learners. Because the Virtual Academy is so structured, with specific class times and schedules, as well as scheduled advisory periods, lunch and break times, self-motivated students can perform well under the framework that has been put in place by the district and teachers and implemented by parents in the home.
Mr. Keating shared that he has also been impressed by the way the Virtual Academy has been able to meet the needs of one of his sons in particular. One of the Keating boys is autistic and often needs help to stay focused throughout the school day. While he observed his son struggle under the initial eLearning that was quickly implemented at the end of the last school year, it is clear that much thought and work has gone into creating and adjusting the curriculum and procedures in the Virtual Academy to allow his autistic son the support he needs to be successful online.
While Virtual Academy is working for the Keating boys on an academic level, the Keatings also recognize the importance of creating a good balance between their sons’ virtual and real lives. To encourage this balance, they have chosen to have all three boys do their virtual schoolwork from the same room where they each have their own computer, desk and workspace, rather than each child doing their work from separate rooms or bedrooms. Additionally, the Keatings strive to keep daily physical activity a goal in their home as well, with each child getting outside to run or physically engage every day.
The Keatings recognize that they are “blessed by the ability to work from home and have two parents available” to facilitate their sons’ virtual learning; thus far, they have experienced great academic success through the Frisco ISD Virtual Academy. The Keatings state that while they believe their sons will eventually return to school in-person, they are happy to continue with Virtual Academy for as long as is necessary.
Many other Frisco families have also experienced success with the FISD Virtual Academy this school year. Local mom Sarah and her three children, in eleventh, third and second grades, have also taken the transition in stride and come up with ways that help them be successful, academically and socially. Like the Keatings, Sarah’s family chose the Virtual Academy over in-person instruction this school year due to underlying health and autoimmune conditions that run in their family. Given the current COVID-19 situation, Sarah says the Virtual Academy felt like the right choice for them and the children are thriving in their virtual learning environment. Eleventh-grader Megan has even expressed interest in continuing with Virtual Academy as a high school senior next year, an option FISD plans to make available again in the 2021-2022 school year. Another key to Megan’s Virtual Academy success has been the opportunity to remain socially engaged with her friends through extracurricular activities. Megan is still able to attend socially-distanced and masked in-person practices and performances with her school’s color guard, a social and physical activity she loves.
Sarah acknowledges that having self-motivated children has been a key to their success, but she also emphasizes that having a strict routine is also vitally important. Sarah and her children still get up at the same time every morning as they did when they were in face-to-face school. Likewise, getting completely dressed and ready for the day is not optional as it helps them to focus and be ready to actively engage in virtual work and school.
Sarah says another key to their success is having a physical school space that works for them. Sarah works from home during the day, so she has set up her second grader’s desk next to her own. Sarah acknowledges that due to his age, her son sometimes needs help remaining focused and on track, so having his desk near her own enables her to redirect his attention if and when necessary. Sarah’s two daughters, in third and eleventh grades, can work more independently and enjoy their own workspace and desks in their bedrooms. Sarah also makes sure to keep an eye on their school supply inventory so that each of her children are prepared for the day and any assignments and projects that may come up.
In addition to parent and student cooperation, Frisco ISD itself is also stepping up to offer support and real-time help to students who may be struggling under Virtual Academy by providing free online tutoring, available to all students across all grade levels. The online tutorials meet virtually every day of the week and are led by “live” FISD teachers. The material covered in the tutorials is synchronous with what each grade level is currently covering during classroom instruction, and the tutoring groups are small enough for each student to get necessary individual attention.
Erin Miller, FISD’s chief student services officer, says that the district’s goal is to honor each parents’ decision to have their child attend the Virtual Academy. However, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and the district require that students must meet certain minimums to continue with virtual learning. These minimums include maintaining a grade average of 70 or higher and having no more than three unexcused absences per grading period. In the instance where a student may be struggling to maintain these minimum standards, the district begins implementing a series of interventions and strategies designed to help the student become successful. Mrs. Miller states that requiring a student to return to face-to-face instruction for subpar performance or attendance is viewed by the district as an absolute last resort. Instead, they facilitate opening the lines of communication between the school, the district, students and parents to work through any issues that may be impeding a student’s virtual learning progress.
The success of students in FISD Virtual Academy requires a balance between student engagement, parent involvement and, when necessary, district assistance and intervention. While some students experience success with virtual learning are described as “self-starters” or “self-motivated,” learners of many types are excelling in the virtual learning environment. After a series of pivots and detailed planning, and with the invaluable help of countless teachers and administrators, most FISD Virtual Academy students are on track in their respective grade levels. While virtual learning is not without its challenges and may not be ideal in every situation, many FISD Virtual Academy students will finish this unprecedented year on a high note, having worked hard and persevered to experience success in their academic pursuits.
Amy Kryzak is a wife, mom and blogger who loves connecting fellow moms, food in all shapes and forms and loves all things Frisco.