By Kevin Hogencamp
Local school systems like Dougherty County’s that have sagging enrollment numbers have a new competitor – along with private schools, homeschooling and even neighboring school systems – to reckon with.
Georgia Connections Academy (GACA), an online, tuition-free, public education option for all students from kindergarten to 12th graders, is enrolling students for the 2011-12 school year.
Georgia State Board of Education board member Elizabeth Ragsdale of Albany dodged questions about the program and its local implications, and refused to answer last week and this week whether she had ever heard of the program. Georgia Connections Academy was approved by the Georgia Charter Commission, which works alongside the Department of Education and whose members are appointed by the state Board of Education.
In the 2011-2012 school year, Connections Academy will serve students via 23 schools in 22 states. Last week, Georgia Connections Academy held an informational session in Albany, but no one attended. In Dougherty County, the school system’s public information director – who is on the superintendent’s cabinet — said he wasn’t aware of Georgia Connections Academy, is eager to learn more about the program, and would have attended the academy’s information session in Albany if he knew about it.
The program is funded with the same money that pays for traditional public education. In other words, if a student leaves Dougherty County for GACA, Dougherty County would lose that funding to the academy. The state average expenditure per pupil in 2009-10 was $8,759, a per-student amount calculated on by dividing a system’s total expenditure budget by the number of full-time-equivalent students.
Georgia Connections Academy officials says the program will combine Georgia certified teachers, a standards-aligned curriculum, unique technology tools, an extensive selection of electives and clubs, field trips, and community experiences to create an individualized alternative to bricks-and-mortar classrooms. Learning from home, students will work closely with a parent, or another “learning coach” and a teacher using detailed daily lesson plans that can be personalized to meet individual student needs
“Georgia Connections Academy has been nine years in the making, a shining tribute to the hard work, commitment, and determination of all those who helped make it happen,” said Stephanie A. Reid, Georgia Connections Academy’s board president. “K-12 students in need of non-traditional routes to academic success now have an excellent virtual option in (the academy). Georgia families can count on (the academy) to provide a total educational experience that leads to superior student academic performance and readiness for college, career, and life”
Andrew Lewis, chief programming Officer for the Georgia Charter Schools Association said, “Every child is different – which is why families are being afforded a variety of options in public education when deciding how to most effectively educate their children. Georgia Connections Academy, our state’s newest virtual charter school will be empowering families across Georgia with one more public school option to determine the best educational setting for their child.”
In the 2010–11 school year, Connections Academy will serve students in Arizona, California (Southern and Central), Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Wisconsin, and Wyoming through its public school programs. It serves students worldwide through the online private school, National Connections Academy. Connections Academy offers grades K through 12, though some public school programs do not offer all grades.
Families or taxpayers seeking more information about Connections Academy and its innovative approach to personalized public education can visit or call (800) 382-6010.
Following is a question-and-answer session between The Albany Journal and Georgia Connections Academy’s principal, Heather Robinson.
THE ALBANY JOURNAL: What is the status of the establishment of the Georgia Connections Academy staff? Where is your office? How many staffers, including teachers, do you have thus far and how many will you employ? Where do the teachers live — in Georgia, necessarily?
HEATHER ROBINSON: Georgia Connections Academy will be located in the Lawrenceville/Duluth area. We are currently working to secure an office space. At present we are looking to hire 10 teachers for grades K – 12, however, as our enrollment increases we will hire additional teachers to support the total enrollment. We are also in the process of hiring an Assistant Principal, Manager of Special Services, and Manager of Counseling Services. Our administrators, faculty, and staff must be able to report to the school’s office each day, thus they must live in Georgia and be certified and highly qualified to teach in Georgia.
AJ: Is there an enrollment cap – statewide and from each school system?
HR: There is an enrollment cap of 900 students, however there is not a cap that restricts the number of students that can attend from each school district.
AJ: Georgia Connections Academy says it provides textbooks to all students. How is that possible when the Dougherty County School System doesn’t do this?
HR: Many of our textbooks are offered online or via e-text and are embedded within the curriculum. This is particularly true in the middle and high school grades. Our high school student texts are exclusively digital.
AJ: How were Albany and other communities chosen for information sessions? Are they being specifically targeted? If so, why?
HR: We choose session locations based on population distribution in the state, and we also look at where people on our prospect list (of people who have asked to join our mailing list) live.
AJ: Must individual school systems provide approval before a student can participate in Georgia Connections Academy?
AJ: Who in Georgia pushed for the establishment of Georgia Connections Academy and why? Did Connections Academy have a lobbyist? Who was it?
HR: Interested parents initiated the movement for the Georgia Connections Academy to be established.
AJ: How does the establishment of this educational alternative affect local school systems funding and planning?
HR: I can’t speak about other schools, but Georgia Connections Academy is a public school, and thus provides an innovative schooling option for students from across the state.
AJ: Will students meet their instructors?
HR: Yes! Our teachers are in frequent contact via phone, email, and synchronous “LiveLessons” where students and teachers learn and engage in a virtual online classroom (similar to a webinar format). Students will have a variety of field trips throughout the school year which will provide opportunities to meet their teachers. Our teachers also proctor state mandated testing at various sites throughout the state and students will meet their instructors during this time as well. As a result of this individual contact with the student and their family, many Connections Academy teachers report that they know their virtual students better than the students they taught when they worked in a traditional bricks and mortar school.
AJ: What are some typical scenarios/experiences that draw families to Connections Academies? Is there such thing as “ideal” candidates for the academy?
HR: The non–traditional school environment can be a great fit for all types of students including those who are significantly ahead or behind in the classroom, those who need a flexible schedule or learn at a different pace from their peers, and those who need more individualized attention or live in isolated rural settings. Homebound and previously home—schooled students can also thrive in Connections Academy’s program.
AJ: What would the local school impact be, for example, 10 percent of students de-enrolled from the local system?
HR: I can’t speak about other schools or districts but what I can tell you is that
Georgia Connections Academy is a public school option available to all students across the state and accountability is central to the Connections Academy mission. As a public school we are accountable to taxpayers. There has been an incredible amount of interest in the school and we look forward to meeting our new student body in the months ahead.
AJ: Who will be accepted in the program? Who will not be accepted in the program?
HR: Georgia Connections Academy is a public school and will accept any student from across the state who has completed the registration process before our enrollment cap is reached. After the enrollment cap is met a lottery will determine placement.