3 new schools offer virtual learningAug 18, 2021 02:01PM ● By Jet Burnham
A Rocky Peak Virtual Elementary School teacher prepares for a Harry Potter-inspired lesson. (Doug Flagler/Jordan School District)
By Jet Burnham | [email protected]
Kindergarten teacher Lacy Abouo reluctantly took an online teaching position last year. Now, after an eye-opening and successful school year, she has requested a full-time position to teach virtually. Abouo will be teaching at the new Rocky Peak Virtual Elementary School, which, along with Kelsey Peak Virtual Middle School and Kings Peak High School, comprise Jordan School District’s Virtual Learning Academy.
“This online program is going to really blow a lot of people out of the water because it's going to be incredible,” Abouo said. “The kids learn and grow—it's truly inspiring.”
The virtual schools, opening this fall, offer personalized, flexible learning with both synchronous (live) and asynchronous (recorded) options to meet students’ needs.
Rocky Peak Elementary Principal Ross Menlove said the past 18 months of online education have been a learning experience for educators.
“We've learned that with the right conditions, the right students, and people making the right choices, virtual learning works extremely well,” he said. “Teachers and students can work very well together online and they can build great relationships. We've learned that kids are learning and progressing. Kids are doing the work that they would do in a building and being able to do it just as well virtually.”
Abouo said with good organization and parent support, she was able to provide a complete kindergarten experience for her virtual students last year, with plenty of fun and hands-on learning as well as social and emotional skill development.
“My students who came to class every day, and did the activities with their parents, skyrocketed—almost all of them are above kindergarten level,” she said. Even her virtual students who had poor attendance were ahead of their in-person counterparts during summer school sessions. She said this is because virtual classes can cover more content with less time wasted during transitions, such as waiting for students to gather supplies or to settle into a new task.
The virtual academies will rely heavily on technology but not just for the sake of using technology, said Menlove.
“Each tool that we use is evaluated, it's respected, it's determined if it's good for kids or not,” he said. “At the end of the day, there are teaching practices that take priority over the technology tool. We focus on learning and the student impact more than the tool.”
Abouo uses virtual activities, tools and games to teach a variety of concepts.
“It is such a rich learning environment that they don't even realize they're learning,” she said.
Abouo likes that with virtual learning, she can personalize assignments and activities catered to each student’s specific needs and abilities.
Her favorite part of online teaching is the unique ways she has been able to connect with her students. Through virtual one-on-one “lunch dates,” she learned what was going on in her students' lives.
“Because they had their computer, they'd walk me around their house,” Abouo said. “So I’d get to meet grandma and she’d tell me her favorite food. Then they’d walk to their kitchen and show me all their favorite foods. So it was like I was a part of their family.”
Abouo said private virtual break-out rooms allowed her to support struggling students in ways she couldn’t in an in-person classroom.
“I don't always have the time or the availability in a classroom setting because I have 35 students, all needing my attention,” she said. “But online, you have these little periods where you can pull kids and talk to them individually. It was magical.”
Third grade teacher Ami Anderson also taught online last year and applied to teach at Rocky Peak Elementary this year. She loves the flexibility of a virtual classroom which allows her to meet students’ needs individually, whether they are on grade level, gifted, or have special needs.
“It gives me the opportunity to help these kids learn the best way they know how to learn, and then to give them that social component that they really need,” Anderson said.
Building strong relationships with students and creating a good classroom community are priorities for Anderson.
“I’ve taught 25 years and one thing that is consistent every single year is students need to feel connected within the classroom, and they need to feel safe,” she said. “If they do that, then they flourish.”
With virtual classes, she uses small group virtual breakout rooms before and after class time for informal interactions—chatting and playing games—to allow class members to get to know her and each other.
The pandemic-driven online teaching of last year is different from the Jordan Virtual Academy curriculum, which was developed by Jordan District teachers, said district spokesperson Sandy Riesgraf. One aspect that was missing from past virtual formats was in-person, hands-on learning opportunities.
Virtual Academy students have the option to participate in group projects, science labs, art, music, P.E. and other learning activities held twice a week at learning centers housed at Hidden Valley Middle and Majestic Elementary.
Like traditional brick and mortar schools, the three virtual schools each have their own identity, principal and staff, community council, PTA and resources, such as a school psychologist.
For more information, visit connect.jordandistrict.org.