‘Best of both worlds’ high school open

Cameron Park student Ashley Bolger, 16, takes classes at the Virtual Academy and is also a student at Ponderosa, where she's the president of Future Farmers of America. Here she's giving a presentation at the academy on organic agriculture. Village life photo by Julie Samrick
Cameron Park student Ashley Bolger, 16, takes classes at the Virtual Academy and is also a student at Ponderosa, where she's the president of Future Farmers of America. Here she's giving a presentation at the academy on organic agriculture. Village life photo by Julie Samrick

What does the future of public high school look like? And how might more American students succeed in an increasingly diverse society?

The El Dorado Union High School District now offers a blended learning model of instruction at its new Virtual Academy adjacent to Union Mine High School. Its head of school and EDUHSD’s new Director of Educational Options and Innovations Aaron Palm called the Virtual Academy a personalized learning environment and on the cutting edge of 21st Century education.

A free, public charter high school available to any high school student in the county or county touching El Dorado, the Virtual Academy opened its doors last spring and currently serves 71 students, mostly from Cameron Park and El Dorado Hills, said Palm. He’d like to see enrollment jump to 130.

Last fall Palm left his post as a vice principal at Oak Ridge to lead the Virtual Academy at Shenandoah. “The future of education is personalizing the educational experience,” he said. “I wanted to be on the cutting edge of that.

The district wanted an option that wasn’t just a high school diploma, but a real college prep academy,” he explained. “(The Virtual Academy) just offers a different delivery system.”

Students are on campus a minimum of two times a week and may complete the rest of their coursework via Learning Management Systems — classrooms in the cloud where kids socially learn online with software purchased by EDUHSD — from home or anywhere there’s a computer.

Palm described this blended learning model as the best of both worlds, where the virtual tool is used in harmony with the traditional role of classroom teachers.

“Most virtual schools put the data online but they don’t want to see you or say to send an e-mail to the instructor if you get stuck,” said Palm. “We are student-led and as virtual or traditional as needed. We offer classes every day if a student wants.”

Why go virtual at all, then? The traditional setting may not have worked for students for a variety of reasons, explained Palm, but mainly because course material moves too fast. Students can still work at their own pace but there are the same requirements to graduate, he said.

“Too often we jam too many kids into a classroom,” said Palm. “It’s one teacher moving the entire class at one pace at one time; if three or four are getting lost too bad.”

With the aid of technology, Virtual Academy teachers put up the lesson and guide no more than 10 students in a class at their own pace, said Palm. “Students don’t get lost, fall behind or hit a frustration zone and quit. Hope is always on the horizon. That’s really what we’re trying to do.”

Technology can never replace teachers, emphasized Palm. “We will always need instructors because learning is personal. Kids need to know there’s a human being that cares about their learning and is on the journey with them.” That’s why students see instructors on a weekly basis and meet with an academic advisor every week.

“When students are done with their work they may go,” said Palm. If they’d like to stay to work on their assignments in the school’s numerous computer labs they can do that too. Parents have to agree with the flexible schedule.

Academically the Virtual Academy at Shenandoah is as competitive as any other high school, said Palm. A highly qualified teacher leads every subject and AP courses are available. Some electives might be taken next door at Union Mine. The school houses the robotics program for the whole district and there is a “huge emphasis on internships,” said Palm.

Academy students follow the same August to May schedule as Union Mine and the school operates with the same four-by-four schedule too, which, Palm noted, is increasingly common on college campuses as well — four classes every day for a semester and then four different classes the second semester.

“Many kids can’t juggle seven classes for a year,” he said. “We say, focus on English and history … that’s it. You can get the entire year done in a semester. Next semester just focus on math and science. Let’s not juggle seven balls; let’s juggle four. And only two are the super hard classes. With four-by-four you’re getting eight classes instead of maxing out at seven like at Oak Ridge.”

When asked whether their students can get into the same competitive colleges Palm says, “Yeah, and I can get you there quicker and better.”

In the future Palm said he’d like to see the Virtual Academy model how technology might be used to create equity across the county. “More affluent communities have access to classes and programs others don’t,” he said. “If you’re at ORHS you can take Japanese. Why should your neighborhood restrict what you have access to? Why can’t kids virtually access that class from a learning center at their home campus?  That’s virtual learning.”

Despite public school budgets slashed statewide, Palm lauded their state-of–the-art facilities, including a “cutting edge science lab” now under construction. “EDUHSD has phenomenal leadership,” he said. “They’ve saved for a rainy day.”

Palm said an “amazing byproduct” he’s seen at the Virtual Academy are happier students. “When you choose to be someplace the bullying and social anxiety goes away,” he said. “It’s like students are happy to be here because they’ve chosen to be here. It may be hard to believe, but it’s the healthiest learning environment I’ve ever been in.”

The Virtual Academy at Shenandoah is located at 6540 Koki Lane in El Dorado. For more information visit edvirtualacademy.com.

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