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Herriman Journal

Virtual learning, what it looks like four years after COVID shutdown

Feb 29, 2024 03:48PM ● By Jet Burnham

Peak Time Specialist Ame Jensen provides students and teachers with a hands-on experience with a large snake. (Photo courtesy of Ellery Goudy/Rocky Peak Elementary)

Four years ago, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to switch to virtual instruction, teachers were left scrambling to adapt. In the wake of that experience, Jordan School District’s Administrator of Digital Teaching & Learning Ross Menlove helped piece together an online curriculum for the 2020-21 school year. What he and his colleagues learned from that experience, they applied to the development of the Jordan Virtual Learning Academy which opened for the 2021-22 school year.

“There was a lot of debate of whether or not [online learning] was good for kids and good for learning,” Menlove said. “And so one of my driving forces was, if we’re going to create an online program, let’s do something that’s good for kids and then we can prove it’s good for kids and produces good results. It was based on research and experience and just good teaching practices.”

Menlove felt strongly that the school model should include both customizable virtual instruction and interactive in-person learning opportunities.

“We came up with our own model based on the idea of providing students with some more activities that are hands-on,” Menlove said, who became the principal of the virtual academy’s elementary school, Rocky Peak Virtual Elementary. “My goal as a principal is to make sure that kids have just as many as or more experiences with the different types of learning as they would in person.”

Rocky Peak Virtual Academy now has 260 K-6 students. The school day includes fun morning announcements with Principal Menlove, a daily minimum of four hours of live instruction with a teacher and classmates, and optional twice a week in-person sessions called Peak Time. Students attend Peak Time sessions at one of two locations, one at the north end of the district and one at the south end.

The purpose of Peak Time is to provide hands-on learning opportunities through art, movement and STEM activities. Students have access to a makerspace with a 3D printer, laser cutter, sewing machines and a wide array of art and crafting tools and supplies. They explore various art mediums and participate in games and physical activities. Students can also compete in STEM challenges, program robots or learn to sew.

“It’s really fun,” Menlove said. “And there’s no grades, there’s no homework, it’s just come and learn at your level.”

Peak Time also includes monthly field trips. This year, students have visited Discovery Gateway Children’s Museum, Museum of Natural Curiosity, This is the Place Heritage Park, Natural History Museum of Utah and Hogle Zoo.

Menlove sometimes drives the bus for field trips, which provides more flexibility with time and budget. All grades are invited on every field trip, so students can go on up to seven field trips in one year.

West Jordan resident Jen Brown said Rocky Peak Virtual Elementary was her choice for her son Ryker over other online school options because of the in-person opportunities.

“I really like the fact that it’s more like a hybrid, so I can keep him home and then I can also send him to the school to do those extracurricular activity classes,” Brown said. “Peak Time offers a lot of fun and opportunities for the kids to be together and to socialize to do those activities.”

Ryker, a fourth grader, enjoys the Peak Time P.E. and art classes.

Cohen Barker, a second grader, likes that he gets to eat lunch with his classmates on Peak Time days. He also loves the hands-on activities.

“We made slime one time for science,” Cohen said.

Cohen’s mom, Kinsale Barker, a Herriman resident, said she loves the flexibility of the asynchronous option which allows her to do family activities during the day and to balance her daughter Chloe’s ballet class schedule with schoolwork. She said virtual school has been a better fit for her and her children than in-person school was.

“I love everything about it, I don’t think I’d ever go back,” Barker said. “The staff is incredible. I feel like the teachers and the staff all care so much about your kid and making sure that they’re where they should be and getting better at everything.”

Menlove said the school offers research-based curriculum, utilizes engaging activities and taps into the latest technology trends, but it’s the teachers that make it such an effective learning experience.

“Technology is great, but it’s the teachers who have the expertise, it’s the teachers who are the magic in the classroom,” Menlove said. “We wanted to highlight that as we built a program and so the curriculum teachers use, the way they deliver it, it’s designed and created by the teachers. We don’t buy anything pre-made. Ours is completely created and delivered by the teachers. It’s delivered live, so the teachers are the ones who can adjust as they go along. There’s a lot of creativity and innovation on the teachers’ part, and I believe that’s what makes a difference, is our teachers.”

Menlove said the smaller class sizes, the customizable content, the hybrid options and the technology are all what makes Rocky Peak Elementary a good fit for students with disabilities, anxiety, health concerns, for those who just need a different environment or who need a flexible schedule because of extracurricular activities or frequent travel.

“We know this school isn’t for everybody,” Menlove said. “But we do know that there are certain kids who this is what they need, and they love it, and they thrive on it, and parents love it, and this is the best learning environment for them.”   λ



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