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Decatur School Board discusses successes, challenges of Decatur Virtual Academy

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Decatur School Board discusses successes, challenges of Decatur Virtual Academy

The Decatur School Board and board members-elect met on Tuesday, Nov. 30, for a work session to discuss the Decatur Virtual Academy and budget priorities. Photo by Zoe Seiler.

Decatur, GA — The Decatur School Board discussed the Decatur Virtual Academy during the work session on Tuesday, Nov. 30. The board looked at the challenges and success of DVA and the future of the program.

The district created the Decatur Virtual Academy as an option for families who wanted an alternative to traditional learning due to COVID-19 concerns. Currently, 92 students are participating in the Decatur Virtual Academy, of which 44 students are kindergarten through fifth grade, and 49 students are in sixth through 12th grades.

“Many of our students also have specialized programming,” Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning Kristy Beam said. “Of our 92 students, we have 48 that have been identified with needs that require special education services, a 504 accommodation, intervention plans in reading and math, gift services or ESOL. That is significantly higher than other schools as far as the proportion of students that are in specialized programs.”

About 14 students have an individualized education plan, 13 students have a 504 accommodation plan, 15 students have an intervention plan, 14 students have a gifted designation and two students utilize ESOL services, according to the presentation.

With the uncertainty of COVID, the school system was able to plan for a maximum of 100 students who could participate in DVA. The number of students interested in DVA nearly tripled in the two weeks before school started this year, DVA K-12 Director JJ Credi said.

Beam added that the DVA enrollment often changes, but the program has had between 85-100 students all year.

DVA continues to have students enrolled due to health and safety concerns. But she also said there is a significant number of the younger students in the DVA that plan to return to in-person learning in January 2022 now that they are vaccinated against COVID-19.

CSD offered virtual learning from March 2020 through May 2021. In January, the district decided to move forward with creating a permanent virtual academy.

“Even though we would welcome families to stay virtual due to COVID-19 concerns, the virtual academy was created to serve families beyond COVID,” Beam said. “We will continue to offer a virtual option, which may be appropriate for students for a wide variety of reasons going forward.”

Beam and her internal advisory team of parents, teachers and administrators planned the virtual academy. Initially, about 30 students were interested in DVA in April, so the district couldn’t have a model like it had when CSD was shut down during the pandemic that offers direct instruction with a designated class and teacher for each subject area and grade level, Beam said.

“The feedback from many of the students was what they liked about virtual learning was the flexibility and to be able to move at their own pace, so we did want something a little less structured than we had last year,” she said.

CSD is partnering with Pearson Connect, which is the parent company of Georgia Connections Academy. Pearson is fully accredited and has been providing online learning for about 20 years.

“Once that decision was made, we began to plan how we could support students and provide that CSD experience that students want on top of that, that our families expect and how we can create that deep sense of community and belonging in the virtual environment,” Beam said.

Through the partnership, Pearson provides the content area teachers, which the district needed. The instruction is more asynchronous than in-person classes. When a student logs in to Pearson, they can see all of their courses, materials, resources, a to-do list of assignments, an activity stream with comments from teachers, and grades.

One early challenge was that CSD started school on Aug. 3, but Pearson teachers didn’t start the school year until Aug. 16. Students were asynchronous for about two weeks.

“That was a big mistake,” Credi said. “What we did not know was that the courses were not completely set up yet, nor had they been revised. Also, our lack of familiarity with the product did not allow us to properly support students, so it was a poor start to begin with.”

Early on, the district realized additional staffing was needed to fill some instructional gaps, especially for the K-5 specials of art, music, physical education and Spanish. Those live lessons were only offered once a month through Pearson.

The district added weekly K-5 media, art, music, Spanish and physical education courses taught by CSD teachers. The district also added another special education teacher due to the increased demand for students with individualized education plans. CSD added a K-2 gifted resource and third through fifth grade gifted resource as well.

It was also evident early on that some students were not engaging with the virtual learning, so CSD added more support, like Saturday School, tutoring, and helping families understand what was available through Pearson, Credi said.

DVA offers students virtual and in-person assistance with CSD teachers; extended day tutoring; tutoring with the Decatur Education Foundation; small group and one-on-one interventions for reading and math; as well as daily and weekly check-ins with students and families.

Most of DVA’s challenges stem from the barrier between Pearson and CSD. The district doesn’t have much control over what happens on the Pearson student portal. The No. 1 challenge has been the amount of asynchronous work required of students, which has been the root cause of parent dissatisfaction, low student engagement or attendance, and low grades.

“Despite such challenges, we’ve had several successes,” Credi said. “We do have some very happy families with a couple of students. Even our family to express frustration has positive things to say about our Decatur staff and the programming we’re offering on our side. We have been able to offer continued learning access for students and families in difficult situations, and as such we’ve transitioned several students to in-person learning in collaboration with parents and their school administrator.”

Going forward, Beam and her team hope to find a program that is a good fit for CSD and will evaluate the age levels that can participate in the virtual academy.

“We want to evaluate our partnership with Pearson,” Beam said. “I think finding a quality provider that is similar to Pearson but does offer more live instruction and more connection with the kids would be ideal. We definitely want to further explore our partnership with Georgia Virtual Academy and the [state] Department of Education.”

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