By Mike Marsee
What once was essentially a closet is now one of Kendra Kulac’s favorite places at school.
Kulac spends two periods a day in the Adair County Virtual Learning Academy, a room at Adair County High School that went from a cluttered storage space to an inviting spot for online learning and study in a matter of months.
The academy was designed to look like a coffee shop or college lounge, and it gives students a comfortable place to learn that looks nothing like the conventional classrooms where they spend most of the day.
“It’s not like a classroom, so it’s easier to work in,” said Kulac, a senior who spends her two periods in the center in transitional reading and an online physics course. “It’s more open and you can have smaller groups of people, so it’s not so loud and crazy like in a classroom.”
The school and district officials who helped develop the academy wanted it to be inviting, from the storefront entrance to a layout that includes soft chairs, high stools and tables, small tables that can be grouped and some more traditional workstations.
“I think that’s the kind of space that’s inviting to a student,” said Assistant Principal Travis Gay. ”Most of the spaces they’re going to go to in college resemble that space more than a traditional classroom setting.”
Adair County Superintendent Alan Reed said that inviting atmosphere is about more than comfort.
“The goal is to entice more students to pursue these online opportunities,” Reed said. “It’s quite different from a traditional classroom setting, but it’s in line with our broader mission, which is preparing our students for when they leave us. We’re always looking for better ways to serve our students, and the virtual learning center is just one example of how we’re doing that.”
Space limitations allowed only those students who were working on credit recovery to work independently during the school day. The classroom previously used for online learning seated only about 25 to 30 students, but the new space is serving 50 to 60 students in its most-used class periods.
Students may use the academy to take online high school and dual credit courses or even prepare for the ACT if they wish. Those who have met the college- and career-readiness benchmark can use the space to work on online college courses they are taking through a series of partnerships between the school and almost a dozen colleges and universities.
“We weren’t offering those selections during the day. We didn’t have the space to do that,” Gay said. “Now we feel like if our students get out of here without taking an online class, we’re probably doing them a disservice, because at some point during their college career, they’re going to take an online course.”
In addition, freshman who are attending Lake Cumberland Area Technology Center in the afternoons are spending part of their mornings in the academy working toward science and social studies credits.
“These opportunities could be very valuable for students, allowing them to take rigorous classes which could help them to prepare for college or career or to attain the classes they need to advance into other course work,” said Kathie Anderson, a consultant in the Kentucky Department of Education’s Office of Teaching and Learning. “Also, virtual learning course work allows students to practice skills such as time management, pacing and independence.”
Chad Parnell, the school’s director of innovative pathways, watches over the academy and serves as a facilitator for the more than 200 students who use it each day – about one-quarter of the student body.
Gay said the academy has allowed students to take more ownership in their learning because it gives them more choices.
“We saw more of a need to get a little more innovative in our scheduling. It grew from giving kids more student choice and having more things available by expanding on the online offerings and virtual offerings. It fit right in with what we were doing,” he said.
For years, the ground-floor space the academy now occupies was used to store things like old prom decorations and drama sets that would likely never be used again.
“It was crammed, so much stuff in here,” Kulac said. “It’s just crazy to think that it went from something that you could barely even walk into to being an actual room where students work.”
The conversion to the virtual learning academy began in May, just after the end of the last school year and a few months after the idea was born. Most of the work was done in-house, which kept costs down, and most of the computers already had been purchased as a result an effort by the district to invest in students’ access to technology. Reed said the academy was built for about $21 per square foot.
The academy was occupied by late August, about three weeks after the start of the school year.
“It’s really been neat to see the students’ reactions to the different settings they have,” Parnell said.
Gay said the academy is the latest step in a culture change for the school in recent years toward more of a focus on college- and career-readiness. That shift in thinking has led to expanded online learning options and the addition of several career pathways.
“That mind shift is what led us to this,” he said. “This fit right into what we were doing.”
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