Principals at brick-and-mortar schools are responsible for making sure things run smoothly administratively and in the classrooms.

The principal of the K-12 Alabama Connections Academy insists her job isn't much different. Jodie Dean once served as an assistant principal and principal of a brick-and-mortar school, so she's familiar with both worlds.

“I have virtual classrooms I have to keep tabs on. I have to do the same type of observations of my teachers and touch base with students and parents,” Dean said. “I provide training and support for teachers and office staff and speak to folks in the media and prepare reports on student data.”

Alabama is the latest stop for Dean, who has a 25-year career in education. She began in Arizona and has worked as an elementary school teacher and special education teacher before moving to the middle school and high school levels.

Three years ago, she transferred to New Mexico where she was the principal of that state's Connections Academy. When the opportunity came available in Alabama, she applied for a lateral transfer and got the job.

How it works

It may be hard for some to wrap their minds around the idea of virtual education, but Dean said there's nothing unusual about it. Students residing in any county throughout the state of Alabama are eligible to enroll full-time in Alabama Connections Academy.

Coursework must meet federal and state standards, and those who complete their education from ALCA would receive their diploma from the state of Alabama. Students are required to take the same state assessments as traditional public school students.

Curriculum and other services for ALCA are contracted through Connections Education. Connections Education is accredited by AdvancED.

“Teachers still have the task of guiding students through the curriculum,” Dean said. “The teachers record (student) attendance and make sure that if they see a student struggling with a math concept, they can do one-on-one tutoring and interact at that moment. (Teachers) have to keep detailed log notes on student information, and their assessment keeps the parents informed as well.”

Using webcams, students will also occasionally participate in live web sessions with their teacher and other students. There will also be socialization opportunities for students and parents of students.

“We'll have regional field trips because there are amazing things to see and experience here in the state,” Dean said, adding activities would include back-to-school picnics and graduation celebrations. “It's great to have access to classes on a computer, but socialization is a huge component of our virtual program.”

If ALCA doesn't fit the needs of a student, he or she may choose to re-enroll in a traditional school. ALCA is tuition-free, so there is no financial penalty.

Discipline

So what about children who misbehave? In a traditional school, children are sometimes sent to the principal's office for a stern lecture. Dean explained students who misbehave virtually are counseled much the same way they would be in a regular school.

Those disciplinary issues can sometimes arise when children are logged into the live lesson classroom.

“They need to develop that etiquette of communication and interaction. If one student is speaking, other students have to wait,” she said. “But sometimes, kids are kids, and things can happen in a live classroom.”

Parents who enroll their children in ALCA receive a student handbook that outlines what is expected in terms of behavior. If an infraction occurs, a teacher may choose to dismiss the student from class and an immediate message is sent to a parent or legal guardian.

“Once the student and parent have been counseled, the student would be eligible to come back to the live room,” Dean said. “It's dealt with in a very swift manner.”

School begins next month

Dean and the ALCA staff will be housed at the former Owens Elementary School, which is undergoing a few renovations to accommodate the new tenants. Between five and 10 people may work at Owens at one time. Some of those may include teachers, but all virtual school teachers have the option of working from home if they prefer.

Alabama-certified teachers are currently being hired for the first year of the virtual school, which begins Aug. 14. Registration is now underway, but no deadline has been set.

“We would like them to get in as quickly as possible so everyone can start on Day 1,” Dean said. “If a family comes in on Sept. 1, they can still enroll with us.”

As of Monday, 850 students were in what she referred to as the “enrollment pipeline.” She explained the number is right on target or a little of ahead of projections.

Dean looks forward to the start of a new school year, but conceded virtual schools aren't without challenges. She explained Alabama has plenty of rural areas where technology isn't as advanced as urban or suburban areas, which means ALCA won't be available to every student.

“With the internet, instead of a student riding a bus to school, they have access to a plethora of rigorous courses,” she explained. “Just because we're accessing them virtually doesn't mean there won't be challenges. It just depends on what each student and their family brings to the table. We just have to make sure we provide the most amount of support as they learn.”

For more information, visit http://www.connectionsacademy.com.

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