Anaheim public schools launch virtual academies for the long haul

A digital rendering of the proposed Cambridge Virtual Academy home base.
A digital rendering of the proposed Cambridge Virtual Academy home base to be built on the district’s Polaris High School site.
(Courtesy of the Anaheim Union High School District

After moving in-person classrooms to distance learning during a global health emergency in mid-March, some educators couldn’t help but wonder how the massive overhaul would affect public education in the long run.

Nearly all school districts distributed loaner laptops. Administrators searched high and low for hot spots when most companies had sold out due to high demand. Colleagues logged into video conferencing apps like Zoom and Microsoft Teams for the first time.

Many students struggled with online teaching. They lacked access to computers and didn’t have a study space at home. In some cases, students had family members who were coping with health and financial hardships due to the pandemic. Others thrived with independent online studies.

It didn’t take long to see an effect.

A handful of public school districts in Orange County spent the summer preparing to launch online-based schools — not just as a pivot during pandemic times but as mainstay educational institutions for the new school year.

The Orange County Board of Education will seek to overturn a July 17 order by Gov. Gavin Newsom mandating schools in counties at high risk for coronavirus return to distance learning in the upcoming school year.

The director of educational technology for Anaheim Elementary School District put together a proposal for a virtual academy in April.

“When we had to go into the school dismissals, we were able to [implement full-time online learning] with a certain level of confidence,” said Mary Grace, assistant superintendent of educational services. “It let us know that we can do this, and we should do this.”

The Anaheim Elementary Online Academy is for K-6 students to learn from home. Teachers provide live instruction during the same hours as brick-and-mortar schools through video conferencing. Technology is provided for free to students.

The curriculum is the same as the other 23 schools in the district and includes music, art and coding classes. Teachers plan to monitor student progress and work with students in small groups and one-on-one meetings. Educators will have classrooms where they can livestream their lessons out of Palm Lane Charter School once it is safe to do so.

In conversations with parents and guardians, Grace noticed mixed reasons for parents applying to the virtual academy. She said most families want the same self-paced independent learning they saw their children thrive in rather than be concerned over sending them to school without an available vaccine for COVID-19.

“We have a number of our employees with children that noticed during school dismissal, their child was producing more work than they were when they were in the seat,” said Grace.

Others want the scheduling and attendance flexibility offered at private and parochial schools where students could, for example, play travel baseball.

As of last week, 260 students had enrolled in the academy.

When asked if the online school is for a specific type of learner, Grace said the child should be a motivated, self-paced student who will have a family to support them.

Estancia High School is the only campus that will start the new school year under the new schedule, which will have students completing half their courses in one semester, then finishing the rest in spring.

Anaheim Union High School District, which is launching the Cambridge Virtual Academy for 7-12 graders, asks for similar qualities in their students.

John Bautista, the spokesperson for the district, said self-motivated, persistent and individual learners with time management skills make ideal students.

“Now everybody is online. But this is very specific to this academy because it is going to be 100% online from the beginning, and we obviously want our students to be successful, so every student needs to have these four qualities,” said Bautista.

The academy is staffing teachers who have experience teaching online through the district’s e-learning program and will use A-G certified curriculum, including honors and Advanced Placement courses. Staff plan to have an emphasis on socioemotional learning and a keystone project that could include a set of experiences like community or civic engagement.

Students would also participate in mentorship programs, which include an internship component.

Bautista taught for 17 years and spent five of those years as an online teacher with a hybrid schedule creating his own online curriculum.

“We already had systems in place to create [the academy] because we had a really great robust learning program throughout our district,” said Bautista. “[The pandemic] just kind of pushed us to launch a little bit faster because there was a need for it. At the time, we weren’t sure whether we were going to come back full seat or hybrid.”

The academy received 994 applications but had only 350 slots available.

Regardless of whether a student is enrolled in an online academy, both Anaheim school districts will start the new school year with distance learning.

A few days after the Orange County Board of Education issued a controversial recommendation in July, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that schools located in counties on the state’s monitoring list may not physically open for in-person classes until the county has come off the list for 14 days. The list includes O.C. with Anaheim making the mark as one of the high-risk cities in the county.

Other districts such as Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified and Irvine Unified are also launching virtual academies while Saddleback Valley Unified introduced virtual academies for K-12 students in the 2017-18 school year.

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