BY KARISSA MILLER
Iredell-Statesville Schools’ Virtual Academy provides an alternative to the traditional school setting for a growing number of students.
“I’ve been working with the virtual programs for eight years. It started with us just creating virtual courses that could be offered through our high schools,” explained Virtual Academy Principal Kelly Hinson.
“We created around 110 courses. That’s how we survived the pandemic, but when it hit we were glad we had all of those courses,” she added.
After the onset of the pandemic, there was some fear and questioning in the community. Some parents expressed a desire for an alternative option to traditional schools, which made it the perfect time for the district to create a 100 percent virtual academy, Hinson said.
“The students and families I have had the opportunity to interact with — it’s eye opening and humbling. There are families we’ve really been able to help and support their learning experience,” she said.
Hinson, who has worked as a principal of a traditional school as well, said that even though Virtual Academy students don’t meet face to face like traditional schools they do get to know their classmates. Their are monthly meetups and regular in-person social programs, which provide an opportunity for students to get to know one another.
“A lot of these students are with us because they have some unique need. Some students need acceleration in their learning and then we have students who need the opposite. They need things to slow down and regain credits. We have to know what every student is coming here for,” Hinson explained.
The K-12 school has an enrollment of 150 students for the 2023-2024 school year.
Elementary student Advaitha Nithin, 8, is an accelerated learner and has been enrolled in the program for two years.
“There are two things I like. I have more time to do the things that I want to do. Another thing is I’m safe from my food allergies. I was having lots of allergy reactions in kindergarten,” she said.
Advaitha’s day begins at 7:40 a.m. and she finishes her lessons by around lunchtime.
“I’m a good student. I like math and science and ELA (English Language Arts),” she said. “My teachers are very supportive and they make sure that (students) understand assignments.”
When she grows up, Advaitha wants to be a surgeon, astronaut, pilot and teacher. “Hopefully, I can do them all at once,” she added.
Advaitha’s father, Nithin Surendran, said his daughter still has access to an array of extra-curricular activities.
“The good thing is students get to participate in spelling bee, science fair and other activities,” he said. “They aren’t missing out on opportunities. They have the same opportunities as in-person school kids.”
Brothers Jacob, 15, and Michael Rompf, 17, are also enrolled in the virtual school, but for different reasons.
“With me, I have ADD, the slightest noise or little bit of sound set my attention to what that noise was rather than the teacher. I struggled in classes for the first few years I was in school. It was undiagnosed and I didn’t know how to control it,” Michael said.
He said he struggled maintaining all A’s, but now doesn’t struggle as much.
“You have a sheet of paper or video and no distractions. It’s you and the teacher. You have this understanding, here’s the work—you are going to turn it in and get it done,” Michael said.
Meanwhile, Jacob said he was being bullied at school. Once the bully was confronted by the principal, it made his life harder. Being virtual has helped him feel safe and improved his self-esteem.
“I’m not around people similar to that — people who were bullying me — I’m around people who are nice and kind to me, which helps a lot,” Jacob said.
He also likes the flexibility in his schedule and the ability to complete assignments at his own pace.
“I get my assignments on Monday and I know what I have to get done,” Jacob said.
Jenettie Rompf said that when her sons were attending traditional school it was an hour commute one way, which added a lot of stress to their day. Now, they can eat breakfast together and travel on the weekends.
“If we travel for the weekend, we can start at 9 a.m. on Monday. Teachers give you until Sunday to finish the assignments, but in our house the rule is by 5 p.m. Friday you have to have everything done,” Jenettie explained.
She said that her sons have learned to manage their time, but that parents still have stay on top of the school work.
“You don’t have a teacher standing over you. There’s no falling off track at home,” Jenettie explained.
“This is a program where the parents have to be involved, too. If not, your kid will end up shopping Amazon all day instead of doing their work,” she added.
Jenettie said the staff and administrators at the Virtual Academy are supportive of the students and families.
“I love the program. I think it’s the right fit for our family,” she added.
Visit https://virtualacademy.issnc.org/about-us for more information about I-SS Virtual Academy.