Dr. Keith Perrigan, superintendent of Bristol Virginia Public Schools, addresses the Virginia Board of Education. Dogwood photo by Amie Knowles. BOE meeting
Dr. Keith Perrigan, superintendent of Bristol Virginia Public Schools, addresses the Virginia Board of Education. Dogwood photo by Amie Knowles.

Southwest Virginia’s Region VII came up with a multi-district solution to help struggling students.

BRISTOL – As the pandemic stretched into this school year, districts across the state made changes as needed. Region VII in Southwest Virginia offered both in-person and online options as early as August.

While approximately 70% of students returned to the classroom for the fall semester, 30% remained virtual. Teaching students in two places at once proved difficult.

“We were unable to assign teachers just to the virtual world or the in-person world. And so we actually had teachers, all of our teachers, teaching both in-person students and virtual students. As you can imagine, that is quite a task,” said Dr. Keith Perrigan, superintendent of Bristol Virginia Public Schools.  “As we moved through the fall, it became more and more apparent that the coronavirus was not going to end soon. And we realized that we would be providing virtual instruction into next year and probably for the remainder of our school careers.”

Perrigan noted that the divisions knew they could provide virtual learning. However, they could not continue asking their teachers to educate both in-person and online students at once.

Taking both their staff and students into consideration, 17 out of the 19 school divisions in the region joined together in October to form a singular VIIRTUAL Academy – a play on words for Region VII. The opportunity allowed classroom teachers to focus on in-person students and gave virtual students dedicated online teachers.

“The amount of options that we have available to us because of this regional partnership are phenomenal,” Perrigan said. “The regional partnership also provided a pricing structure that for the first time really made significant virtual learning affordable to our high poverty school divisions.”

Group leaders approached the Virginia Board of Education April 22 about operating and controlling the regional virtual school.

Southwest Virginia Gets the Ball Rolling

As the idea expanded, Dr. Robert Graham, superintendent of Radford City Schools, reached out to providers offering services concurrent to Region VII’s goals.

Virtual Virginia, Stride-K12 Virtual Schools, LLC and Edgenuity will all provide instruction to students – as determined by each participating division – next year, pending final agreements. The broad array of educational offerings available through the three programs expanded learning opportunities.

“We also have the added benefit of taking care of some of those hard to staff teaching areas because we’re coming together and working together as an entire region,” Perrigan said. “But we also realize that that would provide additional opportunities for our students to take courses from a regional standpoint that they might not be able to take if they stayed in just their division alone.”

Although the region will offer a broad virtual academy, attending students will remain enrolled within their own sending divisions. Perrigan noted that the model allowed divisions to work together. However, districts will maintain autonomy for challenges facing their unique areas, like broadband access.

While the virtual academy will focus on academics, participating schools in the region will still provide other services, like counseling.

Different Learning Opportunities

Each of the three virtual learning options – Virtual Virginia, Stride-K12 Virtual Schools, LLC. and Edgenuity – offer different opportunities for students. Perrigan explained the different uses he anticipated for each option.

“In Bristol, we’re going to use all three providers with the idea that some of our students are higher achieving. We will probably assign them to Virtual Virginia,” Perrigan said. “Edgenuity has done a really great job in our alternative programs and with some of our students who need more support. And so for those students, we’ll probably choose Edgenuity. And for those students who are in the middle of the road from an achievement standpoint, we will probably use Stride.”

Each virtual learning option comes with its own set of instructors. That means teachers in participating Region VII schools would not have a virtual component to their classrooms. The virtual teachers have the same credentials and meet the same criteria needs as in-person teachers in Southwest Virginia.

“We don’t have a choice in selecting those [virtual] teachers,” Perrigan said. “However, we will have a hand in part of the evaluation process and then work with those teachers to ensure that students are being successful.”

Board member Anne Holton spoke from secondhand experience about virtual education opportunities. One of her children took an online Chinese language class in middle school several years ago. The option for the language class did not exist in-person at her school.

“She had both the native Chinese-speaker instructor and a Virtual Virginia employee who was doing all the student engagement work,” Holton said. “And it was a very impressive product.”

Southwest Virginia Looks Ahead

The VIIRTUAL Academy anticipates enrollment of approximately 1,500 students within the region next fall. They also expect over 5,000 attendees outside of the region.

Health concerns are a main motivating factor behind the decision for some Region VII students to remain virtual next year.

“They’re afraid that the child may get the virus and bring it back into the home,” Perrigan said.

Board member Dr. Francisco Duran also noted positives of virtual learning in select circumstances.

“There is a subset of parents, though, who have found this year to be a much more effective way for their students,” Duran said. “So we’ve seen students, for example, with anxiety or social, emotional disorders and things of that nature who have been thriving very well this year.”

Region leaders looked beyond just the 2021-22 school year for a long-term, sustainable model.

“We hope to expand this into other areas in the future. Obviously, we’re going to take it one step at a time and just deal with a Regional VIIRTUAL Academy now. We know in Southwest Virginia and all over rural Virginia, that together we’re stronger. And by coming together like this, it has really opened up a lot of doors to us that wouldn’t be opened otherwise,” Perrigan said. “We’re not only excited about the regional academy and the power that it potentially possesses, but we’re just so excited about other potential things that even we’re unaware of at this time. And so that, to me, I think that’s the exciting part about this Regional VIIRTUAL Academy. “

The Board accepted the materials presented for first review and will reconvene on the matter in June.

Amie Knowles reports for Dogwood. You can reach her at amie@couriernewsroom.com

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