Reflecting on year one of Nebraska's first virtual school


Nebraska’s first — and, for now, only — virtual school recently celebrated its one-year anniversary and is moving ahead with a number of notable changes to the structure and curriculum based on feedback and lessons learned during the first year.

The Omaha Virtual School (OVS) launched in fall 2016 as a full-time, tuition-free K-8 public school, touting a blended learning environment that is flexible and personalized to each student.

The experiment has not received any help from the Nebraska Legislature, where a bill stalled last year that would have provided funding for virtual schools. Instead, Omaha Public Schools took a gamble on the online program and allotted a portion of its general fund to help get OVS up and running.

“Any time you do something for the first time, especially in a state like ours, it’s ever-evolving,” said Rob Dickson, director of information management services at Omaha Public Schools, in an interview with EdScoop. “The model of a hybrid student today is what a future student looks like.”

During the pilot year, teachers and leaders at the virtual school learned that student success depends largely on the parents — and that they must communicate that responsibility early and often. They also learned that the school’s tech-heavy learning environment works quite well as-is, even if not all parents are ready to acclimate to that style of instruction. And, after trying out a number of different blended learning approaches, OVS has tweaked the day-to-day schedule to add rigor and simplify the in-person meetings.

Together, these adjustments have given the virtual school and district leaders confidence to begin thinking about the longer-term trajectory of OVS.

Parsing the role of parents

At its peak enrollment during year one, OVS had 172 students, but it ended the year with 140 — about a 20 percent decline in enrollment, said Wendy Loewenstein, director of OVS. The school had capacity for 300.

Loewenstein and Dickson attribute the student transfers to two main challenges.

First, the success of students in this virtual school depends, in large part, on the role of the parents, called “learning coaches.” Parents have to be engaged in their student’s learning and coursework, and they also have to be invested in the school.

“The key component is a strong parental environment,” Loewenstein told EdScoop. “Some students and parents got into our environment, which is high-tech, and some families found this wasn’t conducive to their learning style.”

Second, many of the students who enrolled in OVS the first year had been homeschooled previously, so the parent-teacher dynamic was new for a lot of the so-called learning coaches.

“They were used to having control over content,” Loewenstein said of the parents. “We worked really hard to build trust, but some families weren’t willing to give up that control and decision-making.”

To avoid this a second time around, Loewenstein and Dickson said a priority for the new school year is to be open and honest with parents about what is expected of them.

“We didn’t know what we didn’t know [last year],” Loewenstein said. “This year, we are able to say, ‘We have to be communicating early and often, and parents need to be fully aware of their role.’”

“The challenge that we’ll have as we grow is continuing to … make sure we stay personable,” Dickson said. “Building that relationship with [learning coaches] is incredibly important in making sure students are successful in their learning and making sure mobility rate remains low.”

The student body this year, which has expanded to include 9th grade, is made up of 200 students, with room to accommodate more. Middle school enrollment (grades 6-8) is still open.

Technology take-over

At a virtual school, the instruction is only as effective as the technology that supports it. OVS found large success with the technology it deployed during year-one and plans to keep much of it in place.

Elementary students each received an HP Streams laptop. Last year, just three were lost and one was stolen. Middle and high school students this year will each receive an HP tablet and stylus.

As a loyal Microsoft partner, OPS schools — including the virtual one — use the full gamut of Microsoft software and tools.

Students and teachers at OVS use OneNote for digital note-taking and classroom collaboration. They use Office 365 and “rely heavily” on the tools in Microsoft Office Suite. They also use Minecraft: Education Edition — a game-based educational program that OPS adopted early on, Dickson said.

He mentioned how students in social studies class could use Minecraft: Education Edition to visit the original 13 colonies, or even build their own colony.

“It really, really takes learning off of the textbook and puts it in an environment where students are engaged and excited,” Dickson said.

The OVS curriculum is built around K12 Classroom LLC.

An average week at OVS

As part of its blended learning environment, OVS teachers and students met both in-person and online several times throughout the week last year. That will persist into the new year, but with a new routine — one that offers expanded class options and a more logical approach to face-to-face meetings.

OVS employs five teachers, a student learning advocate that acts as a liaison between parents and the school — “the glue that holds us all together,” Loewenstein said — and a director, Loewenstein herself.

OVS is a full-time virtual school, but part-time students can dual enroll in OVS as they continue homeschool. Part-time students last year were required to take at least two core content classes — English/language arts, science, social studies or math. This year they are required to take a minimum of three, one of which must be English/language arts.

Other classes available include introduction to computer programming, virtual design and innovation, keyboarding, digital citizenship, art and physical education. Art for grades K-5 and P.E. for grades 6-9 are new to the roster this year.

“We wanted to beef up our course offerings,” Dickson said.

On any given Monday at OVS, teachers and students connect virtually for a homeroom-style meeting, where they discuss a key strategy or skill to focus on that week and address housekeeping items.

On Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, OVS teachers hold three-hour, in-person “enrichment” classes in Do Space, Omaha’s digital library. Students are required to attend one of these three face-to-face meetings each week. On the other two days, they work online at home, moving through the curriculum content with their parents or “learning coaches.”

“The face-to-face time — the focus was really on highly engaged instruction, students collaborating with one another to add more depth and supplement the [online classwork],” Loewenstein said. “It really brought the curriculum to life and provided a learning opportunity they couldn’t replicate at home.”

In a change from last year, the enrichment classes are now split up so full-time students attend classes together and part-time students attend together. Previously, there were no clear guidelines about the enrichment days, which resulted in full- and part-time students attending the in-person enrichment days together. This created a problem for the teachers, who had to spend time helping full-time students with subjects the part-time students weren’t even taking.

“That was difficult to plan for,” Loewenstein said.

During the afternoons, teachers are available for in-person office hours, should students need additional help with the material and wish to meet in person.

And on Fridays, teachers host live online English/language arts lessons, depending on the curriculum and grade. Some teachers elected to hold five short online English lessons for each grade level, breaking students into smaller groups depending on their comprehension level and pace.

A longer-term look at OVS

Loewenstein and her colleagues are optimistic that, with some positive results from OVS as proof, the state legislature may reconsider a bill to fund virtual schools down the line. For now, though, OVS relies on the district for financial support.

OVS extended its curriculum to 9th grade for 2017-18 to accommodate the 8th graders who completed their first year with the virtual school. The plan, for now, is to add 10th grade for the 2018-19 school year, 11th grade the following year, and so on.

“You want kids to be able to be promoted to the next level,” Dickson said. “When you look at college students today, every one of them takes a virtual course. This is hopefully preparing those kids to be ready for college.”

In the future, OVS will consider offering all-virtual elective courses through private and parochial schools. It likely wouldn’t have the same curriculum or face-to-face requirements as the current OVS model, but it would allow the district to “provide opportunities to kids we don’t normally service,” Dickson said.

As they dive into the second year, Loewenstein said she feels much more confident about the school’s ability to meet the needs of students.

“With a year behind us, we’re comfortable with the curriculum, we’re comfortable with the content,” she said. “I took amazing teachers and adapted them to this unique teaching and learning environment. Now, we’re able to add more depth to our students’ experience, even further than we did in year-one.”