Written by Phil Cerroni
By Alice Canham
For some youngsters, the constraints of a traditional school day just do not work. That’s why Robin and Chris Harlan attended a recent information session to learn more about the free virtual public school education offered through Texas Connections Academy. The full-time accredited program is offered statewide for students in grades 3 – 11 in partnership with the Houston Independent School District.
“Our son is an athlete in motocross, and next year will be big for him,” explained Robin.” He’s in Keller ISD, and they have a great program. We know education is key, but they are so strict about their attendance – we’d get in trouble if we held him out for his competitions.”
“How can he practice in the winter when he has to stay in school until 3 p.m. and it gets dark at 5 p.m?” asked Chris. “With a program like TCA, he could do some work in the morning, take the time he needs for his practicing, and finish up his schoolwork later, when it’s dark outside.
“The flexibility is very appealing to us.”
About 15 parents and a few of their children gathered at Residence Inn DFW in Irving on July 23 to hear from one of the program’s teachers, Sallie Benazzouz, who conducted a PowerPoint Q&A to introduce the TCA program.
”This is open to children who have been enrolled in a Texas public school during the previous school year,” Benazzouz told the group. “Our parent company has partnerships nationwide, and we have schools in 25 states. Each year we add an average of two virtual schools.
“We do plan to grow this program so that we’ll have a graduating class for Texas by 2014.”
She described the process through which 3,000 students statewide are engaged, evaluated and advanced. Class content is shared online, and the TCA program provides all curriculum materials at no cost. Each TCA student has a professional teacher whose job it is to oversee learning and progress.
So-called learning coaches are heavily involved in interacting with elementary school students, but older students are encouraged to take on more responsibilities for themselves, once they’ve shown they’re capable.
“Their responsibilities grow with their abilities,” said Benazzouz. “Our goal is always to get you to college.
“In other states where we have been in existence long enough to have a graduating class, we’ve garnered $2.5 million in scholarships for our students.
“We are also the first virtual schools to have National Honor Society, which is a feather in our cap.”
Benazzouz fielded a question about standardized testing by pointing out that they comply with or even exceed the state’s objectives and requirements, as well as national standards.
“The way we develop the curriculum is different because we start backwards,” she explained. “We start by asking where do we want the student to be at the end of the year, and then we look at the state and national objectives, and then we develop the lessons and the content, adding in all the technology and materials and so forth, and we build out the curriculum accordingly.”
Socialization is another concern, as virtual learners face the same challenges shared by those who are home-schooled: how to learn to share and play with others?
Benazzouz pointed out that the TCA format offers countless opportunities for clubs and activities which are shared virtually, and quite a few that are real-time, live interactions. Field trips are organized by community coordinators, some sanctioned by the presence of the class teacher and others more social in nature. Often, TCA families will just have a play day at a nearby park.
Still, there are fewer times when a TCA student is in a group setting with peers.
Chris Harlan said he thought that was a valid concern, one that he raised with his son.
“I asked him, don’t you think you’ll miss your school and friends? He said no, he was good – he wanted to ride.”
“I like that he can do his school work when we’re traveling,” Robin added. “He can get a good education and still live his dream.
“If it doesn’t work, we can always go back to public school.”
Those interested in learning more about Texas Connections Academy classes (which begin Aug. 27) are encouraged to act quickly – there is a cap on enrollment statewide. Log onto www.ConnectionsAcademy.com for more information, or call 800-382-6010.
Some information provided by Texas Connections Academy and by Michele Voelkening, Vice President, Purdue Marion & Associates.