The large open air pavilion at Boardman Park was full of laughter and friendship on Friday as students of the Ohio Virtual Academy gathered to kick off a new school year. They were not alone as similar events were taking place all over the state.
"This is one of 65 OHVA back-to-school picnics happening on the same day all around the state," said Kelsey Ruane, junior account executive from the main office in Maumee.
The OHVA is an online, tuition-free public school option in Ohio and several other states. Parents and students choose the option for a variety of reasons. Ruane said reasons can be behavior or medical issues that may not be addressed in a traditional school setting, advanced learners who aren't challenged enough, families that do a lot of traveling, or students who are bullied and want a safer environment.
Photos by J.T. Whitehouse, Town Crier
Christina Shipton and her son, William Wall, and daughter, McKenna Lewis of Poland, enjoy a day in the park on Friday. The kids are students in the Ohio Virtual Academy that started the school year with a picnic at Boardman Park.
It doesn't mean an easy ride though. The students can sometimes have a more vigorous routine and they have to develop good study habits to make the grade.
Megan Daley, a ninth- and 12th-grade guidance counselor with OHVA and a Poland resident, said when a students enrolls, he or she receives a computer and free Internet service until they graduate. The computers are set up with webcams so teachers can see the students with whom they are working. Often, several students from around the state will be in one virtual classroom and can often work on group projects together from their home computer.
"Whatever you can do in a regular classroom, you can do on the virtual classroom," Daley said.
Daley said OHVA is considered a public school, therefore there is no tuition. She said it is state funded just like a public school and follows the same criteria.
"We have to follow all the state standards including assessments," Daley said. "We are just like the brick and mortar school."
The teachers for the OHVA also work from their homes through the Internet connection. Kindergarten teacher Colleen Mascola of Boardman, said her day starts by communicating over the telephone, then she meets her students in a virtual classroom to begin the school day.
The OHVA has advantages as well as disadvantages. One of the big disadvantages is that the OHVA is a statewide public school, therefore its students can't participate on brick and mortar school sports teams. In essence, OHVA is a kindergarten through 12th grade school with no sports program. Some students solve that by joining club teams.
On the advantage side, classes can often include going from the book to reality. Christine Bloom of Liberty, has three children in OHVA and has been involved for the past seven years. She has seen how a virtual classroom can work to her advantage.
"They get more one-on-one instruction instead of being shuffled around with everyone else," Bloom said. The nice part is they can study in the morning or afternoon and they can take a day and go on a field trip related to their course of study."
She gave the example of when her daughter was studying history and the Civil War. Bloom took a day off and drove to Gettysburg to see what they were reading about.
"You get to see it where in public school you just read about it," she said.
For Tanya McNeely of Boardman, the OHVA offered more for her four children. She said her family had moved to Youngstown six years ago and when she saw the school system, she decided she wanted more for her kids.
"We didn't want the school system around us for our kids," McNeely said. "OHVA far exceeds Youngstown's curriculum and is two to three years beyond the public school system."
Although she now lives in Boardman, she decided to keep her children in the OHVA.
For Christina Shipton of Poland, she enrolled her son in OHVA because he was diagnosed with Asperger's, a form of autism, and she said he wasn't getting any help in the public school system.
"This is my first year with OHVA and I am still trying to figure out what subjects to do and when," she said.
She also has a daughter who is four and, at this point, she plans to let her attend public school. For her son, though, the virtual school seems to be working well.
Janet Moucha of Canfield, has her son and daughter enrolled in OHVA for a different reason.
"My son was having problems in public school," she said. "He was being picked on and the school wasn't doing anything about it, so I tried OHVA. This is our first year and so far it is pretty good. For the first time, my son asked if he could do his work."
Outside of classes, OHVA families also enjoy the get-togethers held on a regular basis. Besides the kick-off to the school year picnic, the OHVA holds dances and field trips.
As for graduation rates, Ruane said the class of 2013 was offered more than $1.85 million in scholarships and some have gone on to attend highly respected institutions such as Purdue University, Ohio State University and the University of Miami. She said one of the most impressive 2013 graduates is Zach Veach, an accomplished Indy car race driver whose career was helped by the flexibility of an online education. Veach won the Formula Car Challenge over the winter.