‘Square pegs’ avoid ‘round holes’ at online school

Booming enrollment at Washington Connections Academy includes 105 Snohomish County students.

MARYSVILLE — There are some pieces of art people should learn to recognize, just like they learn their ABCs, Suzette Fernandez said.

The teacher showed images of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” and Vincent van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” on her laptop screen to students and parents. Then she pulled up “The Great Wave” by Katsushika Hokusai.

“This is going to be your inspiration for today,” Fernandez said.

She directed her class to rectangles of white paper taped to plastic tables in the Rotary Ranch at Jennings Park. She guided them through drawing waves and coloring with oil pastels. They talked about warm and cool colors, Mount Fuji and Mount Rainier, and personal expression.

The students were on a field trip. They take trips frequently, some focused on art and others on science, fitness or other topics.

During typical school days, though, the children go to class using a computer, headset and internet connection. They are enrolled in Washington Connections Academy, an online public school.

This is the school’s second year. It is publicly funded through a partnership with the Mary M. Knight School District north of Elma, and considered an alternative learning experience by the state. The program must meet the same standards — including certified teachers and standardized tests — as other public schools.

There were 1,037 students enrolled statewide as of Jan. 31, including 105 from Snohomish County. Enrollment has more than doubled from last year.

The online program started with kindergarten through 8th grade and is gradually adding high school levels. By 2020, Washington Connections Academy expects to have its first graduating class, Principal Michael Lunde said.

Cynthia Rivette, of Renton, brought her third-grade twins, David and Anna, on the Marysville field trip. They started online school this year because they weren’t thriving at their former school, Rivette said.

“I always feel like schools are trying to jam a square peg into a round hole,” she said.

Anna needs extra support in reading. Rather than being pulled out of class or otherwise singled out for help, she can have online reading sessions without missing other assignments or lessons, Rivette said.

The flexible schedule also lets Rivette and her husband, who both work full time, play a larger role in their kids’ education, she said. The twins go to their grandparents’ houses and do schoolwork there, as well.

David, however, said he doesn’t like online learning. He misses seeing friends at school. A common criticism of online schooling is the lack of in-person social interaction with peers during the school day.

Field trips and activities keep kids connected, Rivette said. They’ve been to the zoo, a planetarium, a wind farm, the beach and local parks.

Online school is not home schooling, Lunde said. Parent involvement is key, but students receive assignments, instruction and grades from teachers. They participate in virtual classes, connected by technology to their teacher and peers.

Fernandez has been teaching since 1999, and this is her second year online.

“You actually know your students better than you do at a brick and mortar school,” she said. “You come into their home and see Mom, Dad, Grandpa, the dog.”

People choose online learning for many reasons, Fernandez said. She has high-achieving students looking for a challenge and others who need extra support. She works with kids who live on farms and fit schoolwork around harvests.

“What we hear a lot is families are looking for flexibility,” Lunde said. “We can provide that.”

Projected enrollment for next year is 1,500 students statewide, another jump. Lunde expects interest in online public schools will continue to grow.

Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; kbray@heraldnet.com.

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