By Wade Coggeshall
— Public education continues to evolve in Indiana, with the recent launch of the state's first public virtual high school.
The Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township now offers the Achieve Virtual Education Academy. Derek Eaton, the academy's headmaster, says starting Aug. 1 the program will offer everything a student needs credit-wise to complete his or her Indiana Core 40 or academic honors high school diplomas.
"This is an option where the school comes to them in a way," said Eaton, who previously served as assistant principal for student life at Ben Davis High School.
Jeff Butts, MSD of Wayne Township superintendent, says the corporation has been involved with virtual education since 1999. They created the Indiana Online Academy, then transferred responsibility to the Central Indiana Education Service Center in 2005. The corporation began developing what would become the Achieve Virtual Education Academy after that.
With public education being a major issue in the last General Assembly, Wayne Township proposed allowing its corporation to open an accredited virtual high school to Tony Bennett, state superintendent of public instruction. They had to meet all legal requirements. For now, Achieve Virtual has been approved by the state as a four-year pilot project.
"Indiana must continue to support innovative instructional models that provide quality options for all students," Bennett said in a statement. "I applaud Wayne Township for heading to the top of the class on this issue and hope school corporations across the state will seek to replicate this forward-thinking approach."
Achieve Virtual will be open year-round. There will be 80 courses available to start, with several others in the works. Tuition is free for Wayne Township students and those outside the district who enroll full-time before Sept. 15. Cost per class for part-time students outside the district is $250.
Enrolled students receive a daily personal identification number for access to courses. That way administrators can track how many days they're online, to meet the state's 180-school day requirement. Pupils complete each course on their own timetable.
"They don't necessarily have to sit in a class for a full 18-week semester in order to earn credits," Butts said. "They work at their own pace with the help of teachers and whatever other resources they have available."
Initially, some critics questioned how it could be verified that it's the students doing the actual school work online. Those enrolled in Achieve Virtual will have to take their final exams on site and in person.
"If a student can pass a final, then we know they've acquired the knowledge and met the standards for the course," Butts said.
This online academy is envisioned for a variety of individuals such as homeschooled students and those at small corporations who want part of a curriculum they couldn't otherwise get; those who want to create space in their schedule to have more time for extracurricular activities; expelled students who don't want to languish at home; and even those who are currently incarcerated.
What it's not meant to be is a replacement for traditional brick-and-mortar schools.
"I myself probably wouldn't have learned best (this) way," Eaton said. "But if a kid just wants to get the information, do it, and move on without being confined to the restraints of a traditional semester, this allows that option. But I think it's just a complement to the things we already do at Wayne Township."
All of Achieve Virtual's courses have been developed by teachers in the school district, who also teach during the day. The courses are set up so that students have frequent interaction with their instructors via e-mail, phone, blogs, and video conferencing. There's also a parent portal so they're kept updated.
"It's no more difficult keeping up with students this way than it is 150 of them throughout the course of a day," Butt said. "It's just a matter of doing it differently."
Almost 200 students were enrolled in the online academy for this past summer school session. Though mostly local, Eaton said he has already heard from interested students in places like Fort Wayne and Martinsville.
"As word gets out, we're getting more and more phone calls and e-mails from interested people all over the state," he said.
For more information on Achieve Virtual, call 988-7144 or visit the website at www.achievevirtual.org.