The forced shift from the physical classroom to remote learning due to the pandemic was disruptive for students and teachers, many of whom eagerly returned to in-person learning when the state lifted its pandemic restrictions.
But some students in the Centralia School District found that they learned better in the virtual classroom.
To maintain that virtual learning option for K-12 students, the Centralia School District has formally established a virtual academy.
The Centralia Virtual Academy graduated 13 seniors this year. Just a few weeks into the enrollment period for the 2022-2023 school year, the Virtual Academy has over half of its seats full at the high school level and has seen many returning students re-enroll for the upcoming year, according to Virtual Academy Principal James Bowers.
“The kids that are returning are returning for a reason,” Bowers said. “They really like what they're doing. And I think word of mouth has gotten some other people involved too, you know. So it's good stuff going on.”
Virtual Academy students are technically enrolled at a corresponding brick-and-mortar school in the Centralia School District — Washington Elementary for K-6, Centralia Middle School for grades 7-8 and Centralia High School for grades 9-12 — which allows them the same resources and opportunities that the in-person students have throughout the year.
“Every opportunity is there for the kids. They can go to prom. They can participate in sports. They can participate in activities and clubs if that's what they want to do. They can buy a yearbook. They can have their picture taken … They have ready access to everything all kids need. Any kid that has it in their standard brick and mortar situation, our kids have the same access,” Bowers said.
Enrollment isn’t strictly limited to students who live within the physical boundaries of the Centralia School District, though they may have to travel to the school to pick up materials or partake in state testing.
Unlike some other online learning academies that have students complete assignments mostly on their own and attend virtual classes once or twice a week, students in the Centralia Virtual Academy attend virtual classes all day. Grades 7-12 log onto Zoom for each class period while K-6 students log onto Zoom for the full day, with some periods of independent work where teachers are monitoring the students’ district-provided Chromebooks via the GuardianGo system.
Kindergarten is its own independent class, but there are combined first/second, third/fourth and fifth/sixth grade classes and a combined eighth/ninth grade science and society class will be offered in the upcoming school year.
“Those teachers work to vertically align student needs, which is super cool,” Bowers said.
While he’s been met with some concerns about the kids being online all day, Bowers said the screen time hasn’t been a problem for Virtual Academy students.
“It’s OK, these kids are really good at it. I've watched them in classes with their teachers. And it's just wonderful to be a part of that learning,” he said.
Virtual Academy teachers teach a mix of virtual and in-person classes, depending on the school’s needs and the teacher’s interest and availability. For example, Bowers has one teacher splitting their time evenly between virtual and in-person classes at Centralia Middle School, a teacher at Centralia High School teaching five periods virtually and one period in-person, and some Centralia High School teachers doing most of their classes in-person and one period virtually.
“It’s a pretty cool melding of staff working together to build what is needed for kids,” Bowers said.
Going into the third year of providing a virtual learning option for students, the Centralia School District has mostly worked out the technology-related kinks and figured out a system that works for teachers, students and parents.
The district has also been working with contracted consulting company Education Elements on developing the virtual academy and applying best practices to the virtual classroom.
“I think, with what I have learned personally, this year, I'm going to be able to incorporate everything and be much more comfortable in what we're doing and what I'm doing,” said Bowers, adding, “And really, everybody across the district kind of stepped in and (filled) all of the roles necessary to assist us in whatever we needed.”
Parents have also been supportive of the Virtual Academy, which is an essential part of why the system is successful.
“That's the agreement, that (parents) have a safe place for (students) to work, which is home, they have a place at home for the students to do the work, there's no distractions in the background … and we ask the parents to be involved, especially at the younger levels, help them out, and then of course to communicate with us,” said Bowers.
There are no extra fees associated with attending the Virtual Academy in lieu of an in-person school in the Centralia School District. The district also works with families who need help boosting their internet connections or acquiring materials needed for their students’ classes.
“I don't want to put up any barriers for any kid,” said Bowers.
For anyone curious about whether the Virtual Academy would be a good fit, Bowers recommends applying just to get their name on the list, and then working with Bowers and the district to determine whether the Virtual Academy is a good fit.
“Most of our students want to be online because as they work best that way, there are other reasons that are, you know, very dependent upon family as to why they're in Virtual Academy,” said Bowers.
Students who decide to try the Virtual Academy are asked to stay for at least one trimester before leaving the program if it’s not working for them, though Bowers recommends that students stay through the full school year so they can get a good feel for the program.
“All we’re trying to do is present opportunities,” said Bowers. “We ask the parents to just be supportive and be part of your child’s education.”
Applications for the Centralia Virtual Academy are currently available online at www.centralia.k12.wa.us/Page/4402.
Details on how many seats are available in each grade level are accessible on the application page.