Since the Alabama legislature passed a measure in 2015 requiring every state school system to adopt a plan to provide an online option for students, a growing number of parents are enrolling their children in these newly available education options.
The law prompted Eufaula City Schools to adopt the first completely virtual K-12 public school program in the state that same year. Athens City Schools followed suit one year later by establishing Athens Renaissance School, a program that offers both blended and entirely virtual options.
At the start of the 2017-2018 school year, Limestone County Schools became the third system in the state to adopt a virtual public school program when it partnered with Alabama Connections Academy (ALCA). All three virtual schools are tuition free and open to students throughout Alabama.
Brad Lewis, executive director of curriculum and instruction for Limestone County Schools, said school officials looked at the partnership between Alabama Virtual Academy (ALVA) and the Eufaula City School system before bringing ALCA under their wing.
ALCA operates much like the Eufaula virtual program. Coursework must meet federal and state standards and be taught by Alabama accredited educators. Students in both programs generally attend live virtual classes where they can interact with the teacher via a microphone and other students in the class by typing in a chat box or writing on a shared online board. Classes are archived so students who miss a live class can catch up later on their own time. Regular testing is also mandated by both programs.
Kayleen Marble, head of school for ALVA, said students turn to their program for a multitude of reasons.
“They may want to accelerate learning or they may be caught in a bullying situation,” Marble said. “Safety is always a big concern, and some parents just want to be more involved in their child's education.”
Both programs rely heavily on parent involvement. Often referred to as “learning coaches,” parents must log attendance, communicate regularly with teachers and administrators, and keep their children on task.
“There has always been school-choice options, with private, parochial or home-schooling as viable choices, but our approach is not 'home-schooling,' as students are taught by state-certified teachers who partner with deeply involved parents who often act as learning coaches,” said Marble.
Lewis said he believes more parents are turning to virtual programs because not everyone has access to high-quality schools.
“We are fortunate to live in North Alabama, where we have a lot of good systems and access to financial resources that provide a better quality of life,” Lewis said. “But, there are some parts of the state that cannot afford those same opportunities.”
Not only do virtual schools like ALVA and ALCA provide more educational options to Alabama families, they are also good for the districts in which they reside.
In Limestone County, for example, county and city schools split local tax revenue based on average daily membership (student enrollment). So, when Athens opened ARS, it significantly increased the number of students enrolled in the city and, in turn, increased the percentage of local taxes it received.
According to Kimberly Hubbard, chief school financial officer for county schools, the county's percentage dropped from 72 percent to 60 percent when Athens launched ARS. Since LCS brought ALCA on board, the county's percentage has climbed back up to 67 percent.
Aside from collecting a bigger share of local tax revenue, Limestone County Schools receives a small portion of the money ALCA gets from the state.
Hubbard said ALCA gets 97 percent and LCS gets 3 percent, with a guaranteed minimum of $230,000.
During the 2017-2018, ALCA's allocation from the state was $692,290.
County schools can expect to see their percentage of the local tax pool and the amount they receive from the state increase this year since the enrollment at ALCA has doubled.
ALVA has seen a similar spike in numbers, going from 50 students in 2015 to an estimated enrollment of 2,500-3,000 students in the upcoming school year.
“We partnered with Alabama Connections because online education is going to revolutionize public education,” Lewis said. “It is about providing the best education for Alabama's children, whether that be in a brick-and-mortar setting or online in their homes.”