Schools of the future: Inside Alabama's virtual public school

Published: Oct. 31, 2017 at 2:00 AM CDT|Updated: Oct. 31, 2017 at 6:45 AM CDT
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MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Instead of going to a school building each day, hundreds of students in Alabama are logging in to learn through an online public education system called Alabama Connections Academy.

Alabama is the 34th state to partner with Connections Academy, which got its start 16 years ago.

The school takes an old concept of virtual learning and turns it into something that demands accountability and responsibility. And now students right here in our area are leaving their regular schools and signing up for it.

More than 900 Alabama children are enrolled in the program. Of that number, 150 are in central Alabama. The students attend classes from their own home right at their fingertips.

On an early Friday morning in Montgomery, Terri Tillman checks out the school work her three daughters are doing through Alabama Connections Academy.

"I'm very pleased with it so far," Tillman said.

And so is Tillman's 12-year-old daughter, Tiarra.

"I was really excited because I heard about the live lessons because I could communicate with my teachers and students," said Tiarra Tillman.

The Connections Academy got its start in 2001 with the first virtual schools beginning in Wisconsin and Colorado. The first classes to be offered in Alabama started in August.

The Limestone County School District in north Alabama partnered with the founders, a move pushed by school superintendent Dr. Thomas Sisk. The Limestone County School Board voted unanimously to adopt it after two years of vetting. Although the program is offered through Limestone County schools, students statewide can enroll.

"What this partnership represents is choice for parents and change. When you go into the traditional format, the teacher is the smartest person in the room, but when you engage in technology, the smartest person in the room is the device, so we want to transform how we deliver instructions, so you're on the ground floor," Sisk said.

Choice and change are the two driving components behind Connections Academy. In Athens, for example, Dawn Craig took her 16-year-old daughter out of her local public school because of bullying and now she continues her high school education from home.

"I think this is huge for the state. She does the classes at her own pace," Dawn Craig said.

"I like it a lot. I think it's more organized than a public school," Ashley Craig said.

Alabama Connections Academy students get all their core courses online sprinkled with live discussions. Think of it as modern-day homeschooling that demands more accountability and participation.

The free courses and teachers are state certified. The majority of the teachers are home-based too.

"Even with her doing this virtual school at home she is still part of this school district. If she wanted to, she could play basketball or softball," said Dawn Craig.

"It's a lot of work. The assignments are more rigorous. You gotta get this done," said Terri Tillman.

And therein lie potential traps that could make Connections Academy a lot more than what families bargained for.

"She's held accountable to teachers, and she has actual teachers she has to check in on a regular basis," Dawn Craig said.

In other words, the program places the burden on the student to get the work done in a timely manner even though they may work at their own pace, all this despite inherent temptations at home. In Ashley's case, a swimming pool in the front yard and a huge TV mere feet away.

"My mom is always here, but even if she wasn't I wouldn't feel tempted," Ashley Craig said.

Jodie Dean is the principal of Alabama Connections Academy for the entire state.

"You are correct, not everything is perfect. There are some who are highly qualified teachers who struggle conceptually to believe this is too good to be true, a scam, but the reality is this is an educational trend that is not going away," said Dean.

It's a trend Tiarra Tillman's dad doesn't want to go away. Tommy Tillman likes the fact he can check his daughters' progress anytime, anywhere.

"I can look up and see what my children are doing, see grade percentages," Tommy Tillman said.

And Dean has the impressive capability to learn even more from her office in Limestone County.

"On my computer, I can see anything I need to see. I have my finger on one of about 400,000 data points to see what my teachers are doing and what the families are doing," Dean said.

So where is Alabama Connections Academy headed? The traditional schools we see today could very well be dramatically altered in just a few years.

"It won't be as large or it will be a different design and maybe more of a blended facility where students can access both virtually and in person," Dean predicted.

Until then, Ashley Craig and Tiarra Tillman will remain keyed into their high school studies in a virtual kind of way.

Although becoming a student of Alabama Connections Academy won't cost a dime, families are responsible for the laptop or desktop computers, and they must provide their own internet connection. We also learn that if for whatever reason the families determine Alabama Connections Academy just isn't working for their child, they can always return to the public school in their district.

Limestone County is the only district in Alabama partnering with Connections Education.

For more information about the Alabama Connections Academy, click this link.

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