It’s the middle of a school day, but Hannah Thellian is sitting at her dining room table.
The 11-year-old taps away at her laptop keyboard, pausing every few minutes to stroke the head of her dog, Lyla, a tiny Chihuahua mix who’s sitting on her lap.
“How often can you pet your dog at school?” asked her mom, Rita Marie.
Hannah can do it every day. That’s because she’s enrolled at Ohio Connections Academy, a public virtual school where all her classes are taken online from her Cleveland Heights home. Hannah and her 13-year-old brother, Sean, are about to finish their first full OCA semester, and both say the experience has been rewarding.
“When you try to have a lesson at a real school, like not online, you get interrupted by the kids who don’t pay attention and goof around,” Hannah said. “You don’t have distractions, besides things at home. You don’t have distractions from kids who don’t care about learning.”
Students interact with the program through the Learning Management System, an online application that gives them access to all their class info, lessons, instructions and due dates. The program also features bi-weekly live lessons that teachers conduct via streaming video, during which students have an opportunity to ask questions, comment and get involved just like they would at a physical school.
“You can time what you’re doing daily, so you could have all algebra in a week on one day and all science the next day. Or you could have it algebra, science and social studies one day and the same the next day,” Sean said. “So there isn’t a person pushing you to get it done immediately. It has a due date, but it really doesn’t have a due date.”
Being able to learn and work at your own pace is one of the benefits of an online school, said Katie Brecheisen, OCA’s statewide assistant principal for grades kindergarten through 8. The school currently has about 2,700 students enrolled and more than 280 in Cuyahoga County. Eight of those live in Cleveland Heights.
“You’re not held back by working where everyone else is because that’s what’s being covered,” Brecheisen explained. “You have the option to slow your pace down if you need to spend a little more time making sure you’re getting a skill. Likewise, when something’s really clicking with a student, they can move forward and they can continue challenging themselves with the curriculum.”
Interest in e-schools has exploded over the last four years, with enrollment surging by 9,000 students, according to the Ohio Department of Education.
Rita Marie Thellian said she tried out several different educational options for her kids, including homeschooling Sean and placing both him and Hannah in and then and , before deciding on OCA.
Thellian certainly had her pick. There were 27 e-schools operating in Ohio during the 2009-2010 school year. Seven of those, including OCA, have statewide enrollment, while the rest enroll only locally.
She said what swayed her to OCA was the “excellent” rating the school received from the Ohio Department of Education and its curriculum, which she said seemed to focus more on writing and less on “busy work.”
“In the brick-and-mortar school I found it was a lot of busy work, a lot of homework, but it didn’t seem to be focused or guided, whereas now we’ve got clear lessons in what we’re working towards,” she said. “I find this to be a much more rigorous education.”
Hannah and Sean are receiving straight A's and both said they credit the one-on-one contact with their teachers for their success. Students have access to their teachers by email and can even work out problems over the phone. Hannah said she improved from a D to an A in geometry, in part, by going over a test she did poorly on with the teacher question by question during an hourlong phone call.
Since it's a public school, attending is free and all books and even desktop computers are provided. The school also helps pay for home Internet access.
The Social Aspect
Thellian said an online school helps her kids avoid some of the negative social traps that come with a physical school, especially bullying.
“I would say my son’s experience was he was not the recipient of bullying, but he saw bullying. Obviously the kids who are involved in that are used to it and are quite tolerant of that, but that’s not how we raised our kids,” she said.
Sean, a seventh-grader, said he didn’t have many friends when he went to school, but avoided being bullied because he was taller than most of the other kids.
“This is fine for me,” he said.
His sister, on the other hand, said the social aspect is something that she does miss.
“I really, really miss having recess time with my friends and just talking. That’s what I miss,” Hannah said. She hangs out with her friends on weekends and after school, but said she still would like to see them every day like she used to. OCA does offer field social items for the students to interact, including trips to the zoo or to amusement parks.
One thing Hannah said she was happy to leave behind was her peers' judgmental comments
“I couldn’t dress the way I like to,” she said. “I couldn’t wear jeans that flare, I had to wear the skinny jeans. If you wear your hair down, or if it was a little messy, you would hear about people making fun of you.”
Hannah, who is in fifth grade, said she still encounters some kids who are disruptive during live lessons, either by instant messaging other students through the live chat boards or making fun of someone’s comment. OCA fifth-grade teacher Melanie Schank said teachers have ultimate control over the chatting, so students who misbehave are sometimes messaged privately or the chatting feature is shut down.
Brecheisen said parents are contacted if students continue to misbehave and administrators can even get involved to work out a plan to correct the actions. She said parents are essential to a student’s success at an online school and have access to all their child’s lessons and grades and receive parent emails from teachers to keep them apprised of how their child is doing.
The Cleveland Heights-University Heights School District recently also got into the online learning field, offering online lessons to enhance classroom instruction about three years ago, according to Jeffrey Johnston, director of Student Services. The district also offers a program called Opportunity Labs at the high school, an online program allowing students to recover or accelerate needed credits, he said.
Johnston said these programs will be expanded starting next year to include the Options Center at the Deborah S. Delisle Educational Options Center, formerly known as Taylor Academy. More about the options center will appear in future articles.