Some Redwood area students are discovering online public high school gives them more options than traditional bricks-and-mortar schools.
When people hear that Jordan Woelfel and Shawna Bitker are enrolled in on online high school, the first question most people ask is, “Oh, so you mean homeschool?” Well, not really. Jordan’s mom, Teri, explained: “With homeschool, the teacher is also the parent, and is expected to come up with the curriculum. “With online school, the students have accredited curriculum and teachers they can communicate with (over the Internet). Student Shawna Bitker explained, “Online school is similar to homeschool, but I’m actually enrolled in a real school.” The way most classes are set up, each instructor has an hour of group class time a week to teach the next lesson. From there, the students can call, email, or Skype the teachers at all hours of the day or night for individual instruction. One advantage: because the teachers record their weekly lessons, Shawna and Jordan can replay them later to review or work out problems they didn’t get the first time. “I’ve called the teachers many, many times for help over the phone to get that ah-ha moment,” said Shawna, who said, “My favorite part is not having to sit in a classroom for hours a day, distracted by kids who don’t want to learn.” Shawna points out how the instructors made her show her work in math class. “I’m more comfortable writing it out in pencil, so I’d take a picture of my worksheet and email it to the teacher.” For art projects and other hands-on lessons, the students are given detailed instructions, and are expected to send the teachers photos of the works in progress. “I did a cell mitosis project using yarn (and other craft items), and sent the teachers photos of each step,” said Jordan. Most of Shawna and Jordan’s teachers are based out of Connection Academy’s Twin Cities facility, but they have also had teachers based out of Tennessee and Connecticut. One huge appeal for Shawna was the variety of classes available. Among her recent high school classes: Latin II, Honors U.S. Government, Honors Algebra II, and Intro to Psychology. “They have classes in Mandarin (Chinese), every language you can think of,” she said. Jordan is about to start his third year, his junior year in Connections Academy, with most of his high school teachers based in the Twin Cities. He and Shawna are also both taking college credits through SMSU over the Internet. For Shawna and her mother, Janet, online school became an option when Janet saw an ad for Connections Academy. She and Teri warned that parents interested in online schools need to do a bit of research to find a reputable one. Both went with Connections Academy, based in-part out of the Twin Cities. One other thing about Connections Academy: it’s free. “It’s a public school,” Teri pointed out. “Because (Connections Academy is) a public school, the kids still have to take all the MCA and GRAD tests that brick-and-mortar schools have to take.” Connections Academy requires students to put in a minimum of 30 hours per week, although those hours can be done 24/7. Shawna said, “Last year, [when I had health issues], I would wake up at night, and do my school all night.” Today, Shawna and Jordan say they do most of their school work in the morning to get it out of the way and leave their afternoons free. Vacation and personal days are flexible: last year Shawna worked ahead enough to start her summer vacation a few days earlier than most of her classmates. One concern many parents have about any form of homeschooling is the kids’ lack of interaction with other students. “We go on lots of field trips across the whole state of Minnesota,” said Teri. “They make a real effort to make sure we have opportunities to socialize with people our own age,” said Shawna. One highlight of the year: a Connections Academy prom held in the central location of Monticello. Teri said, “The school has a National Honor Society, which Jeremy, Jordan, and Shawna have been inducted into, as well as a National Junior Honor Society for kids in grades 7-9. “The requirements to get in are the same as those in a brick-and-mortar school. Janet said, “In most families, you need to have a family member there to keep the student motivated. If Shawna hadn’t been self-motivated, this wouldn’t have worked out.” Jordan acknowledged that, but also said the little daily lesson plans and reminders help keep him on track. Teri said, “Parents need to be involved as the learning coaches. The kids need some adult who will oversee but not teach to make sure it gets done. “This just seemed like a great way for us to (handle Jordan’s schooling). I wanted to be the parent, not the teacher, too.”