Originally posted in The Telegraph – August 31, 2017
Damacia Howard goes to school in her pajamas, and Rachael Dixon often does her lessons with a pet dog or cat on her lap.
They’re among the thousands of K-12 students in Georgia enrolled in free, public “cyberschools,” receiving their education in the comfort of their own homes or on the road.
Both girls started online school as sixth-graders. Dixon, a budding artist now in the 11th grade, was being bullied at Twiggs County Middle School and didn’t have access to art classes to advance her skills. Kimberly Dixon, her mother, said she found Duluth-based Georgia Connections Academy while researching other education options and was impressed by its curriculum.
Regina and James Howard didn’t want their daughter to attend the middle school in their zone in Atlanta. They decided that Georgia Cyber Academy, based in Atlanta, would be a good fit for Damacia, who’s now in ninth grade.
“We didn’t want her to be in an environment that wasn’t good for her,” Regina Howard said. “We wanted her to be focused and not have any distractions.”
Families may opt for online schooling if their children are professional athletes or involved in activities in which they have to travel a lot. Others choose it because their children have medical conditions or severe allergies, or they just want something different, said Heather Robinson, the Georgia Connections Academy executive director.
Cyberschools can work for students with a variety of backgrounds, including high achievers, struggling learners and special needs students, said Veronica Clemons, Georgia Cyber Academy’s head of school. Students and parents have more flexibility than in traditional classrooms, but they have to be committed to the learning program and meeting school requirements.
“There are certainly times where it isn’t a good fit for a family, and that’s OK,” Robinson said. “As a public school and a school of choice, our families can choose us for whatever reason.”
Georgia Cyber Academy had about 14,000 students last year and now has about 500 kids from Middle Georgia. Georgia Connections has 4,000 students and 91 from Middle Georgia, including 53 in Macon.
“Most charter schools are located in urban areas and not accessible to students in rural or outlying counties,” Clemons said. “Online charter schools are often the only public school alternative available. These schools serve a critical role … by providing every student, regardless of where they live, equal access and opportunity to a public school option.”
The schools use online platforms, so students can connect anywhere they have internet access. It’s a combination of live online lessons, recorded sessions and interactive activities with teachers and classmates, Clemons said.
“One of the things that we really were excited about was the rigor,” Regina Howard said. “When (Damacia) started attending Georgia Cyber, this was the first time we ever heard her say ‘this is hard.’ Still, she’s an honor student, but it’s more challenging.”
Teachers communicate regularly with students and parents, Clemons said. Georgia Connections instructors interact with their students through phone calls, emails and live lessons, Robinson said. Students and teachers use headsets with microphones and webcams.
Each child must have a designated learning coach, and Kimberly Dixon and Regina Howard fulfill those roles for their daughters. The coach takes responsibility for the student’s academic plan and schedule and talks regularly with the school.
Kimberly Dixon said she has to log in Rachael’s school hours and submit her completed assignments. Her daughter can get in touch with her teachers within minutes, and technical support is always available. An online planner shows assignments, progress and due dates.
The textbooks are all online for high school, but Georgia Connections mailed books to Rachael Dixon when she was in middle school. The school has sent science equipment, art supplies and other materials needed for her classes.
Rachael Dixon said she’s able to arrange her studies to fit her schedule. She likes to get up at 6 a.m. to start her studies, take a break around lunch and finish up in the afternoon.
“It’s more convenient toward me and my type of learning. You can pick which lesson is best for you and study how you want to,” she said. “I just enjoy my art, and I’m able to fulfill what I want to do with it.”
Damacia Howard does volunteer work, participates in pageants and is training to become an actress, and Georgia Cyber Academy allows her a lot of flexibility, she said. If they need to travel, she can take her laptop and do her lessons on the road.
“Online school gives students the opportunity to advance at a pace that is right for them,” Clemons said. “Advanced learners can progress quickly, and those who find concepts more challenging can take the extra time they need.”
Both schools host a number of physical meetings throughout the year to help students and teachers get to know each other. Rachael Dixon said she has been friends with some of her Georgia Connections classmates since sixth grade.
“(Rachael) has become more self-confident. She’s a lot more independent,” Kimberly Dixon said. “She’s been able to focus on her classes and actually learn. She’s been able to do what she wants to do. Art is her heart.”
Students must participate in on-site statewide testing every year. Georgia Connections organizes about 40 testing sites around the state.
The school holds academic labs across Georgia, and students can do one-on-one tutoring sessions. Twelve to 15 field trips, aligned to the curriculum, are offered each month. Students have visited the Georgia Aquarium, the Center for Civil and Human Rights and Okefenokee Swamp, and they went to West Georgia to view the solar eclipse.
The school also hosts social events such as welcome and farewell parties, and student clubs sometimes meet in person too.
With Georgia Cyber Academy, Damacia Howard has gone ice skating, visited Stone Mountain, participated in a gingerbread house contest, and attended summer movie days and back-to-school and end-of-the-year celebrations.