Student attending virtual school
(Photo by Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)

One-in-six students in the Danville Public School system signed up for all-virtual schooling

DANVILLE – To school officials surprise, over 900 students signed up for Danville Public School’s first-ever all-virtual schooling option this coming academic year. Offering lessons for students from kindergarten through 12th grade, the I.W. Taylor Virtual Academy will open its virtual doors this month.

Dr. Angela Hairston, division superintendent, expressed that the level of community interest exceeded the district’s expectations. During the 2021 school year, the district served 5,828 students, according to Public School Review. That means that approximately one-in-six students selected the virtual option for the upcoming school year.

“It’s a significant number. We did not anticipate that level of interest,” Hairston said. “But in speaking with some of the children and families, I found one, some of the families felt that the virtual environment last year was a really good experience for them. And they enjoyed it and wanted to take that opportunity again to engage. So we were excited about [the Virtual Academy]. It’s another way of engaging children in learning on the platform that they feel they do best in, relative to performance.”

Creating the Virtual Classroom 

Hairston noted that teachers experienced difficulty having both a virtual and in-person component to a single classroom. 

Starting Aug. 9, some DPS educators will welcome students back into the classroom in person, while other teachers will meet students in an online space. Teachers will not experience overlap in classroom styles. 

“We had three categories of teachers. We had some that were internal, very excited to go to virtual and volunteered. We had some that we personally asked to come to virtual, knowing their skillset. And then we’ve hired several teachers from outside the district,” Hairston said. “So we have a diverse staff relative to their opportunities to get here.”

Throughout the hiring process, DPS sought teachers who could engage students on a virtual platform.

All virtual teachers will report to their classroom spaces at the former Irvin W. Taylor Elementary School, which DPS operated until June 2013. 

Hairston expressed some of the main benefits the district noted in the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years, which both contained virtual components.

“There was flexibility. We saw lots of creativity,” Hairston said. “And students – elementary, middle and high school – felt more individualized instruction. They did miss some of the distractions. That was what we saw, that they really felt that they were able to accomplish more. They really liked the independence they were given. And then again, some of our teachers are just remarkable when it comes to using technology to engage students and they were able to use some of their technology skills.” 

The Same Standards

Even though the delivery of the content differs, the education remains the same for both virtual and online DPS students.

“[The Virtual Academy is] similar because the students are still learning the same Standards of Learning. That does not change,” said Takiwi Milton-Babalola, DPS’s chief academic officer. “The students virtually have to learn the Standards of Learning, and also the students in a face-to-face setting.”

In a previous article, Charles Pyle, director of media relations at the Virginia Department of Education, noted that both in-person and virtual students would meet the same requirements to move on to the next grade level at the end of the year. 

“Virtual programs offered by school divisions must cover the state-required content of the Standards of Learning, and students learning virtually must take the SOL assessments required for their grade level or course,” Pyle said in mid-July.

While the overall goals remained the same for virtual and in-person pupils, the presentation of the content differed.

“How it’s different is how the learning environment is involved,” Babalola said. “In the virtual environment, you have to make sure – because we’ve using Canvas – that our Canvas page is interactive, is engaging for students. That they have [an] opportunity to engage virtually, to have discussions online versus in a classroom where it’d be a small group face-to-face.”

Staying on Track

Rather than have each student demonstrate proficiency with technology, the school division opened the opportunity for virtual learning to every K-12 student in the city. However, if students fall behind, DPS has a plan to help them get back on track.

Hairston highlighted the need for engagement on the virtual platform as one of the driving factors toward online learning success.

“If we find that students are not logging in, engaging in the virtual platform, we’ll use the same strategies we use face-to-face. Meet with the parents, provide supports for them to be successful, to try to reengage them,” Hairston said. “But we also realize that while we have a significant number who enjoyed the virtual platform, that’s not for every student. So we did not deny students who made the request to be in virtual. We will watch them throughout the semester and if the platform does not work for them, we will gently invite them back to face-to-face.”

Hairston looked forward to introducing a dedicated platform to students to experience success in a different way. 

“Oftentimes, we offer children very few options for learning. This is another option,” Hairston said. “And so it gives us an opportunity to meet the needs of some of our students.”

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