For Southwest Allen County Schools, dreams of launching a virtual school didn't begin with COVID-19.
The planning started about five years ago, and efforts to launch the program began in earnest last fall as administrators began meeting with teachers to develop some courses, said Park Ginder, Homestead High School principal.
Administrators envisioned offering the program to homebound students and those needing to make up a credit.
“Then COVID hit,” Ginder said. “We're able now – because we were past the ideation stages – able to use a catastrophe, basically, to meet needs and push things forward.”
Called eSACS, the virtual school was one of three learning options the district offered middle and high school students this fall.
More students in grades six and above could soon sign up because the school board is considering opening enrollment to eSACS. If approved, the change would allow a limited number of students from outside the district to enroll.
Details have not been released.
The board last month approved using up to $300,000 in rainy day funds to support eSACS curriculum development, and Mark Snyder, the district business manager, at the time said the investment would be reimbursed by payments from out-of-district students.
“We look at this as a potential revenue stream at some point in the near future, hopefully,” Snyder told the board.
Districts including Wayne Township Schools and Center Grove Community Schools not only model how virtual schools can operate but also have shown there's demand locally, SACS leaders said.
For example, elite athletes have unenrolled from SACS to pursue training, taken courses through Wayne Township's virtual school and returned, Superintendent Phil Downs told the board in July.
“This allows us to be a little more responsive to those students,” he said.
As of Thursday, eSACS had more than 270 secondary students, which is about 7% of the district's middle and high school population, spokeswoman Stacey Fleming said.
A complete Core 40 curriculum is offered to high school students, and a core class curriculum – math, language arts, social students, science – is offered to middle schoolers along with optional Latin classes for seventh and eighth graders.
SACS based its virtual school on research of successful models at Arizona State University and Purdue Global.
The virtual school provides students more flexibility compared with the district's new real-time at home learning option, which lets students participate in classes via video conferencing. Students receive the week's eSACS assignments on Mondays and have until 11:59 p.m. each Friday to submit their work.
“A student can work on an eSACS course at 2 in the morning or 2 in the afternoon,” said Susan Summers, an assistant principal at Homestead.
Teachers are exploring ways to create a sense of community with students, such as discussion boards and online collaboration tools, Summers said. They can also record short lectures for students, who can test their comprehension through quizzes providing automatic feedback.
“It is quite different than what the students experience in a regular classroom,” Summers said.
About 40 middle and high school teachers are participating, Summers said, noting administrators reached out to educators they thought would be a good fit for the program. Those invitations considered the teachers' existing school commitments and personal situation.
“They have to balance their life and what their schedule is here at school,” Summers said.
Students may communicate with teachers by email, through the learning management system and during weekly office hours, Summers said. She added teachers could respond to the virtual students after the traditional school day or during their prep period.
“That format allows us to keep the teachers in the classroom, still working with the students who are able to come and join us,” Summers said.
The district's long-range plan for eSACS includes adding honors, Advanced Placement and dual-credit courses, Summers said. Wayne Township's virtual school demonstrates it can be done, she added.
Neighboring Fort Wayne Community Schools has no immediate plans to pursue a virtual school. It became a one-to-one district this academic year, meaning each student has a laptop or tablet.
“Right now we are focused on getting through this year with remote learning,” FWCS spokeswoman Krista Stockman said. “We expect to learn a lot this year that will help us make decisions in the future.”
It's difficult to predict how the coronavirus pandemic will affect eSACS enrollment long term.
“Certainly, this has changed everything in education,” Summers said of COVID-19. “It's been a game-changer.”
eSACS course offerings
• Grade 6 – Reading, language arts, math, social studies, science
• Grade 7 – Language arts, math, social studies, science, Latin I (optional)
• Grade 8 – Language arts, math, social studies, science, Latin I or II (optional)
• English – grades 9-12
• Math – Algebra, geometry, algebra 2, pre-calc/trig
• Social studies – World history, U.S. history, government, economics
• Science – Biology, integrated chemistry and physics, earth space science
• Business – Strategic marketing, business management, personal finance
• Art – Graphic design I and II
• Music – Music history I and II
• World language – Latin
• Physical education