The Alamance-Burlington school system is planning to open a new virtual academy this fall for students in grades six through 12, ABSS deputy superintendent Dr. Angela Bost told school board members during their latest meeting.
The virtual academy is separate from the remote instructional plan that ABSS and many other North Carolina public school systems began the 2020-21 school year with, in hopes of slowing the spread of COVID-19. Students who enroll in the virtual academy would receive their instruction entirely online, in lieu of traditional in-person classroom instruction, though they would have to take standardized tests such as End-of-Course exams in-person, based on the concept plan.
“It would, in essence, be our 37th school,” Bost elaborated.
The move follows numerous other N.C. public school systems that have launched fully-online schools during the current and previous 2019-20 school years.
The virtual academy is also separate from existing online coursework that ABSS currently offers high school students, who are able to take online classes in piecemeal fashion, “perhaps one at a time,” to beef up their high school transcripts, as Bost described that option.
While enrollment will be initially restricted to middle and high school students, ABSS hopes to eventually expand it to kindergarten and elementary school students, based on a concept plan that school board members previewed.
The virtual academy was listed as an information item on the school board’s meeting agenda, meaning no vote was required for the ABSS administration to move forward with opening for the 2021-22 school year, Bost said.”[This] is merely to provide you an overview of the concept we have in mind,” she said. “You won’t hear a lot of details, because once we know the board is on board with a concept, we will be able to move forward with planning the details and bringing those back to you. This is just the 500-mile-away view.” Additional details about the virtual academy will be presented to school board members at a future meeting, Bost said.
Staffing the ABSS Virtual Academy will require at least four new administrative positions to be created (an administrator; administrative assistant; a school counselor; and a technology facilitator), plus “access to a school social worker and school nurse,” based on the preliminary concept that Bost presented.
It is unclear, at this stage, how many teachers would be needed for grades six through 12, as well as for students in the Exceptional Children’s (EC) program or those classified as English-language learners (ELL students), based on the concept plan for the virtual academy that Bost outlined. ABSS will determine how many teachers are needed, based on how many students apply and enroll in the virtual academy, the concept plan states.
ABSS will begin accepting applications for the virtual academy this spring, Bost said. Students at the middle school level will be required to enroll in the virtual academy for at least one year; high school students will be required to enroll for a minimum of one semester.
The virtual academy will follow the state’s standard course of study. Classes not offered by ABSS would likely be available through the North Carolina Virtual Public School (NCVPS), Bost elaborated. The state-run NCVPS launched in 2007 for middle and high school students and offers five programs: the state’s standard course of study; occupational course of study; “flex learning: math intervention; and ELL programs, according to NCVPS.
School board members were generally receptive to the concept for the virtual academy.
“I think it’s an outstanding idea,” said school board member Wayne Beam.
School board member Ryan Bowden said he’s pleased to see the administration “thinking outside the box and seeing what we can do differently,” though he asked how the virtual academy might eventually affect per-pupil funding for the 33 traditional ABSS schools.
‘Minimal impact’ on per-pupil funding for traditional ABSS schools
“Since the student funding comes to the central services level, it won’t necessarily impact the school directly,” Bost responded. “It will be [a] minimal impact because of the formulas that are used to allocate money to schools; it will have a slight impact on personnel, but that will only be realized if there are a significant number of students who apply from a certain school.
“That will be flushed out at allotment time,” Bost added, referring to the annual budget process in which the Department of Public Instruction sets funding levels for N.C. public school systems, following approval of a biennial budget by the General Assembly and governor.
ABSS students who enroll in the virtual academy would remain eligible to participate in sports, through the traditional schools located within their school attendance zones, Bost noted.
School board member Patsy Simpson asked whether the administration had considered incorporating the virtual academy into one of the two “specialty schools” that ABSS is planning to launch once the county’s seventh high school is built. Instead, the virtual academy will operate similar to the ABSS Early/Middle College that is housed on Alamance Community College’s Graham campus.
The $150 million bond package that voters approved for ABSS in November 2018 will fund construction of a $67 million new high school, which is planned for 96 acres in the Hawfields community and targeted for completion in May 2023.
The two specialty schools that Simpson referenced during the discussion include $10.9 million to renovate and upgrade Cummings High School, which will converted from a comprehensive high school to a specialty school of the arts; and $7.6 million to renovate and upgrade Graham High School, which will be converted from a comprehensive high school to a specialty school for skilled trades programs. Proceeds from the 2018 school bond will be used to pay for both of those projects, which are targeted for completion in December 2022.
Bost gave no indication that the virtual academy might be incorporated into one of the specialty schools but did agree to look into Simpson’s suggestion to let students in the virtual academy participate in school-sponsored extracurricular activities.
Start-up and operating costs for virtual academy pending
Bost hasn’t yet provided school board members with an estimate of start-up and operating costs for the virtual academy; nor has she said whether its staff will require offices. The concept plan indicates that the virtual academy’s staff will work remotely most days but will report to an ABSS site for professional development, meetings, and other activities as needed.
Some of the other N.C. public school systems that have opened virtual academies include: Alexander County schools; Buncombe County schools; Burke County schools; Catawba County schools; Craven County schools; Davidson County schools; Guilford County schools; Lee County schools; Moore County schools; Onslow County schools; Wake County public schools; Wilson County schools; Winston-Salem/Forsyth County schools; Yadkin County schools, according to those school systems.
Guilford County schools launched two “tuition-free” virtual schools starting with the 2020-21 school year, according to that school system. Wake County public schools also opened a virtual academy at the beginning of the current school year, receiving 78,792 applications – or just under half of the number of students enrolled in the state’s largest public school system, The (Raleigh) News & Observer reported last July.