Mike Connors, The Virginian-Pilot
Betsy Barber recently celebrated her 13th birthday doing what she loves: working on gymnastics for several hours.
Betsy dreams of competing in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo and is good enough that she might be able to qualify if she keeps improving. That goal requires dedication – a lot of it. She regularly puts in 34 hours of practice a week.
Betsy has found an increasingly popular alternative to traditional education. She’s one of about 1,200 students who take classes through Virginia Virtual Academy, a public, online school.
Virginia Virtual students take state-mandated tests. But Betsy likes that she has flexibility to take classes on a schedule that works best for her.
“I can go at my own pace,” Betsy said.
Six days a week, Betsy starts practice at 8 a.m. at Excalibur Gymnastics on Arrowhead Drive, a gym that produced Olympian Gabby Douglas, who medaled last year and in 2012.
For the next four hours, Betsy works on conditioning and floor, beam, bars and vault exercises. She particularly likes floor because it lets her show off dance moves.
About noon, Betsy breaks for lunch. Then she finds a quiet room at Excalibur and opens her laptop.
Virginia Virtual opened in 2009-10. It attracts students from across the state in kindergarten through eighth grade, though to meet a growing demand it is adding ninth and 10th grades next school year. It plans to add 11th and 12th grades the following year.
As with other public schools, the academy is tuition-free. It exists through a partnership of the school divisions for Richmond, King and Queen County, and Patrick County. It is run by K12 Inc., an online education provider.
Betsy takes four core subjects, math, science, social studies and a variety of English classes. Students meet with their teacher in a typical “class” an hour a week, though they can later re-watch recorded sessions. They also can keep in regular contact with instructors by email, phone and online support.
Kari Barber, Betsy’s mother and a former Landstown High teacher, gives her daughter Spanish and health lessons.
Betsy’s language arts teacher is Laura Cantrell, who is in her first year at the academy after teaching at Floyd County High School. The academy’s curriculum is rigorous, Cantrell said. One challenge for students is balancing schedules.
“It requires a level of self-discipline and time management,” Cantrell said.
Betsy tried various education methods when she was younger. Besides Virginia Virtual, she spent time at John B. Dey Elementary and was home schooled.
This year, she returned to Virginia Virtual. Kari Barber likes that Betsy’s schedule has taught her discipline. She also likes that teachers are responsive, even at odd hours, and that Betsy doesn’t compare herself to other students – they’re in her classes, but she can’t see them.
“It just seemed like it was a good fit for her,” Kari Barber said.