A couple of months ago, I shared here that Sarah Kate had opted to do virtual school this year. Virtual school is an online option offered by our school district to students from eighth grade all the way through high school. For background on why Sarah Kate chose this option, read this post. Now that we’re several weeks into the year, I thought it was time for an update on how it’s going.
The Way It Works (For Her)
Sarah Kate takes the same approach to virtual school as she did to traditional school, and that’s a good thing. She was always the kid who tried to finish homework before she left school, and if she couldn’t, she’d work on it as soon as she got home – not because she loved homework, but because she wanted to get it out of the way so she could move on to more fun stuff. Now, her alarm goes off at 6:30; she grabs a smoothie and gets right to work. Most days I run or walk after I drop Nathan off at school and she’s finished for the day by the time I make it back home. Then she showers and gets ready for band, and when she gets home from band she has the rest of the day to do non-schoolwork stuff.
Rather than working a little bit each day on five academic subjects (her sixth class is band), she devotes one day per week to each one – Math on Monday, Science on Tuesday, English on Wednesday, etc. She can work as far ahead as she likes, and in the beginning she got really far ahead in a couple of classes (she did the first three weeks of Algebra on Day One), but she’s settled into a routine now of staying just a little ahead of the recommended pace.
She takes all of her tests at the virtual school site, which is located on the campus of the local community college a few blocks from Nathan’s school and across the street from the library. It is open and staffed from 9:00 am – 5:30 pm on weekdays and she just shows up, signs in, takes the test, signs out, and leaves. She prefers to “batch” her tests, taking 2-3 at one time so she doesn’t have to make as many trips, and that works well for me because I can either pop into the library to work or go pick up Nathan at school and come back. I wish she could test earlier in the day, but I get it – most teenagers don’t get up early like she does (and some of them drive a long way because our district is geographically very large).
Although we’ll receive a midterm progress report in a few days, it’s only a snapshot of where she is at that moment in time. Because the courses are self-paced, grades aren’t fixed until the end of the semester. If a student gets too far behind, a teacher may insert what are called “pacing zeroes” as a signal, but once the student completes the work the zero is removed. For the students who are new to virtual school, some of the teachers have allowed test retakes as a sort of “safety net” while the students adapt to a new way of doing things. For example, in Sarah Kate’s classes, the Algebra teacher allows students to retake any test below a B – once, but the Science teacher doesn’t allow retakes at all (and retakes will be phased out completely at some point).
The Extra Time
The first week of school, I was a little worried that Sarah Kate was going to have too much free time, and I’m not gonna lie – she does have a fair amount. However, it’s not “too much” – in fact, I think it’s ideal, because it gives her some downtime in the middle of the day. If she were in the brick-and-mortar school all day long, it would be go-go-go until bedtime every day. Right now she’s on the high school swim team and has a part in the upcoming local production of James and the Giant Peach, Jr. – she practices for one or the other every weekday, some on the weekends, and a few weeks this fall she will go directly from rehearsal to a swim meet. The flexible schedule allows her to focus on schoolwork (not navigating a huge building or dealing with middle school drama) yet still have time for her other interests without burning out.
Having flexibility in her day has helped her juggle multiple demanding activities in other ways, as well. On days when play rehearsal interferes with swim practice, she can go to the pool during the day to make up for it. Her coach offers optional morning practices before school, so Sarah Kate can reference the workouts posted in the morning for her midday solo practice. She also has time for other exercise – usually stretching, strength training, or riding a stationary bike, although we still walk the track occasionally – that benefits her body. She hasn’t done as much as I’d like to see, but it’s taking a little time to work out the kinks.
The Miscellaneous Wrinkles
Since she’s still in band, she has to go to her base school for one period each day. It’s not at the most convenient time, and I thought that would be a hassle for me, but it hasn’t been too bad. We don’t live far from the school, and I figured out right quick that the amount of time between when I arrived home from dropping her off and when I had to leave to go back for her is pretty much exactly the right amount of time for me to shower and get dressed…so that’s what I do. The only time band at the school has been an issue is when Nathan had a full-day field trip and I was a chaperone. Fortunately, Sarah Kate has a friend who is also in virtual school and band and her mom was able to pinch-hit for me that day. We are each “authorized” to pick up the other’s kid and it’s come in handy for both of us already.
Virtual school is not new in our district, but it IS new for eighth grade, so we’ve had some hiccups along the way. Because only a handful of eighth graders at her base school are enrolled in virtual school (we know of four – out of 400 – although there may be more), the administration tends to forget about them. The first time the bell schedule was changed for the day, no one told us, and Sarah Kate and her friend both showed up 20 minutes late to class. Some of these we’ve been able to predict in advance, but not all of them.
On a similar note, there’s a good chance Sarah Kate won’t get to be in the swim team photo in the yearbook. Team photos are being taken this week, but they aren’t scheduled for a specific time; the student athletes are just supposed to listen and go when their team is called. Unless the photo happens to be while she’s at the school for band, she’ll be out of luck.
Sarah Kate’s 504 plan wasn’t revised for the coming year. In fact, we didn’t even meet with the school about it at all – it simply hasn’t been necessary. She signs in at the office each day (which she has to walk past going to and from band), goes to band, signs out, and leaves. The band room is on the first floor and is on the least-busy hallway so no movement modifications are necessary, and she has as much time to make the trek as I give her. 😉
The number question people ask me is, “Won’t she/doesn’t she miss her friends?” and the answer is (mostly) no. Most of her friends are in her other activities, though there are a few people she misses seeing. One benefit of having more time (and therefore being able to do more activities) is not only that she has more time to focus on things she really enjoys and is good at, but it’s also where she goes to spend time with her “tribe” – the people who share her interests.
As far as her grades are concerned, she has five As and one B (an 89.18 average at the moment). She’s never made a B before, but at this point last year in seventh grade (a big adjustment, too, because that’s the beginning of middle school here), she also had one B, but for the semester she made all As. I’m really pleased at how easily she’s been able to make the switch to managing her time and work with minimal guidance.
Sarah Kate loves virtual school – so much so that she declared three weeks into it that she wants to continue all the way through high school. I’m not opposed to the idea, but I’m also not ready to commit yet. I imagine we’ll take it one year at a time. Once the school reaches an enrollment of 250 students (they had over 150 a few weeks into the year), the virtual program will be recognized as a separate school with its own graduation ceremony and other benefits. A virtual PTA is already being created. I have no doubt it’ll happen before she graduates.
I’m proud to say that Sarah Kate and I have gotten along really well these past several weeks. I freely admit that I was anticipating a rocky start with both of us here together all day every day, but I was wrong. About once a week we grab lunch and some days we watch a rerun or two (or three) of our favorite sitcom, The Middle. We’ve driven around town looking for pieces that can work for her James costume, and we’ve gone to the gym. We’ve been able to spend time together – ordinary time, without Nathan or Mr. Andi – and that’s the thing I like most about virtual school.