Nontraditional schooling has been in the spotlight since spring of 2020 due to COVID-19, but Abilene’s schools have been ahead of the curve in that respect, having had virtual learning for older students for more than a decade.

Unified School District 435 Virtual School Director Brian Roth updated the board of education on the state of remote learning in Abilene public school classrooms at the board’s monthly meeting Monday night.

Abilene’s virtual school program predates the pandemic. Abilene High School started offering virtual school about 12 years ago, according to Roth. Students must be enrolled in at least four classes to be considered full time students in the virtual program. It’s possible for students to be enrolled in both virtual and in-person classes — in fact, Roth said this is encouraged.

He said he did not believe a computer system could fully “replace the human element of teaching” in the educational system, though he added that some students excel in virtual school in ways they sometimes did not in traditional settings.

“What we’ve found is the kids who do really well in this program are either really intrinsically motivated — they want to do well — or they’re extrinsically motivated — they need a job, they have some personal issues, have some family issues,” Roth said. “Various reasons bring them to me. Those kids tend to do incredibly well.”

About 80 students have graduated from Abilene High School using this program in the 12 years it has been in place, he said.

Last year, there were a total of 32 students in the program, according to Roth.

“Obviously COVID was a big reason for that,” he said. “We had about 15 middle school kids at one point who were part of it as well. So I will say that we were much better equipped than a lot of school districts to take on the COVID issues, because we had a system that was state approved.”

He said staff tries to place students in programs where they will succeed as opposed to falling further behind.

According to Roth, students who are being considered for virtual schooling have a two-week probationary period where they are allowed to try out the program temporarily. If a student does well during that two-week period, they are allowed to continue with the virtual schooling program. 

However, if they do poorly or if they simply decide they don’t like it, the student will be returned to the high school. 

“In that two-week time if they meet the expectations that we put forth for them, we allow them to stay,” Roth said. “If they get a day or two into it and say ‘nah, this is not for me, I do not like it,’ we very simply put them right back in the high school.”

Roth also talked about the DCLA program offered to Abilene students, which he said had been around since the late 1990s.

According to Roth, students who have graduated from high school using this program have met with degrees of success. He said graduates from this program had found careers as hair stylists, members of the military and as nurses, among other things.

“These kids are leaving us and they’re successful,” he said. “It’s not the same. It’s not a normal classroom. They come into the building and they check in and they sit in a cubby and they work on their iPad and they get help from the teachers.”

Students are also expected to take at least one traditional class at the high school.

Roth said this program has been successful in helping students who had otherwise struggled to gain their educations, including students who are in desperate need of credits.

“We have some amazing kids,” he said. “They are awesome. They just didn’t do school.”


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