Back-to-school time, virtually, for Indiana Connections Academy
By Carole Carlson firstname.lastname@example.org/302-0949 August 11, 2013 10:26PM
Cathy Bergin watches over her two sons, Zach, 7, and Connor, 10, as they do summer reading Thursday in preparation for school at the Indiana Connections Academy, a virtual charter school. | Post-Tribune photo
Indiana Connections Academy: www.ConnectionsAcademy.com
Updated: September 13, 2013 6:02AM
Cathy Bergin doesn’t have to worry about back-to-school shopping for her two boys, Zachary, 7, and Connor, 10. Snow days aren’t a problem either.
Going back to school on Monday for these Merrillville boys means opening up a laptop at their kitchen table or reading in a beanbag chair in the living room, or on a blanket on the front lawn.
In 2011, Bergin pulled her boys from their classrooms at Fieler Elementary and signed them up for the Indiana Connections Academy, a virtual charter school where students learn lessons broadcasted from Indianapolis-based headset-wearing teachers to headset-wearing students across the state.
Both Zach and Connor suffer from Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism.
Despite getting good grades at Fieler, Bergin said her boys didn’t fit in the traditional school setting where they had trouble understanding when other kids were joking with them.
“It wasn’t exactly bullying, but the kids always took it personally. My son Connor would come and say he just couldn’t do it anymore,” she said.
Indiana Connections works for the Bergin family because it allows the children to move at their own pace in a familiar environment. A physical education class for the Bergin children, for example, could be working out to a Wii game.
A learning curve
But it’s not necessarily for everyone, an Indiana Connections official said at an information session last month in Merrillville.
The session drew Terri Almeido, of Griffith, who was looking for a different option for her daughter, Annika Lanting, 17, who attended Griffith High School.
“She’s been bullied since middle school,” said Lanting, who said her daughter is a special education student. After the session, Almeido felt Indiana Connections was right for Annika when she met with other parents who described similar situations.
“I found out there was another mom going through the same thing and I could use them for support. The parents seemed happy with the school,” said Almeido who withdrew Annika from Griffith.
Parents like Almeido and Bergin are expected to serve as their child’s “learning coach,” making sure they do their lessons and stay focused on school during the day. In Almeido’s case, she works full-time so her parents have agreed to be Annika’s learning coaches.
Bergin is able to stay home with Zach and Connor during the day, while her husband, Ken Bergin, goes to work. While her kids do their online studies, Cathy Bergin is often online herself taking courses in business management from Western Governors University-Indiana, a web-based university launched in 2010.
Chartered by Ball State University, Indiana Connections is in its fourth year. There are similar Connections Academies in 25 states.
Principal Melissa Brown said she expects an enrollment of about 3,500 students in grades K-12, up from 2,800 last year. She said the bulk of students come from Indianapolis, Gary and Fort Wayne.
The school has 105 teachers, but because they don’t have to deal with discipline or lunch duty, class sizes can be a little larger.
“I’m very passionate about what online education can do for children,” said Brown, whose first experience with it came in 2001 in Denver.
But with rapid growth comes academic obstacles. In 2012, 59 percent of students passed both sections of ISTEP+ and the school received a letter grade of D, down from a B in 2011.
Brown voiced disappointment with the school’s performance but said many factors beyond test scores need to be considered.
“The types of students we are serving are struggling. That’s why they come to us. It’s going to take us a few years to turn the tide there,” she said. “We’re not satisfied, we want them to get better. We are committed to that. We’re looking at ways to give students all the individual attention we can give them.”
The school has already held two high school graduation ceremonies in Indianapolis and parents generally give the school good marks.
The state’s other virtual charter school, Hoosier Academies, received an F grade two years in a row, prompting Ball State to order the school to submit a corrective action plan.
Virtual schools are somewhat unchartered territory for state lawmakers who haven’t crafted many regulations pertaining to class time or other measures.
There are truancy violations at Indiana Connections, Brown said.
“We have a system for measuring attendance and participation. When it reaches a certain threshold, we contact the family and often do a home visit,” she said.
Brown said students shouldn’t believe they can slide at this school.
“Sometimes students think it’s the easy way out. Those students who think they’re going to hide often time get in trouble. We don’t let them hide. On rare occasions, we suspend and remove them.”