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New online K-8 school serves state

Kids today are hyper-connected to technology, from texting and communicating on social media to downloading interactive apps and playing games like Pokémon Go. As a father and educator, I am impressed by how easily grade-school students as young as kindergarten can use a mouse, browse the Internet and even make friends with children across the globe.

You could say technology comes second nature to them. And, just as home entertainment has evolved from the TV set to the Internet, so too has learning, progressing from the chalkboard to the computer screen, even for little ones.

On Aug. 8, parents in New Mexico were given a new school option for their young learners with the opening of Pecos Connections Academy (PCA), a tuition-free, online public school serving students statewide in grades K-8. It became the state’s first and only online school serving students in grades K-3.

The school’s focus will be on early literacy, with work on interpretation and comprehension through the humanities while providing electives in the arts. It’s a big step for the state and for New Mexico families, as we are learning that children of all ages can thrive in a virtual school setting.

While online education has grown rapidly over the years, many parents still ask me how online school works at the kindergarten level. For starters, online education allows parents to have more direct involvement with their child’s academics.

Much of the success of young learners in an online setting is due in part to having an involved learning coach, a parent or other adult, who works closely with the teacher to create a supportive learning environment in the home. While teachers are responsible for the instruction of students – providing lessons, working through the curriculum and grading assignments – learning coaches play a key role in helping students understand the material and develop necessary study skills.

A typical day for a kindergarten to third-grader might start at 8 a.m. with an hour-long live lesson focusing on a core subject. Afterward, the student would complete his or her core lessons and break for lunch.

In the afternoon, the student would complete electives and attend an additional live lesson focused on reading intervention, which allows teachers to listen to recordings of students and work with them to improve their literacy skills. Finally, the student would have a general tutoring session for communication or other questions, followed by extra-curricular activities.

Because it is such a unique environment, online educators are specially trained and remain in frequent contact with both the student and the learning coach. And, with recent advancements in technology, particularly in the field of education, teachers can create the same real-time, lively interactions of a traditional classroom in a completely virtual setting.

In fact, our sister school, New Mexico Connections Academy, which serves students statewide in grades 4-12, surveyed its parents from last year and found that 96 percent of them were pleased with the helpfulness of their children’s teachers.

The computer is a vital tool for the success of an online student, but much of the work is actually completed “unplugged,” especially for younger children. Students are provided with textbooks and workbooks and even participate in hands-on experiments – just like they would in a traditional school.

When I speak to parents, some are concerned about a lack of socialization. However, PCA’s program is designed to embrace life outside the classroom, offering virtual school students the same opportunities to interact with teachers and classmates as they would in a traditional brick-and-mortar setting.

Students connect with each other through statewide field trips, school-sponsored events, clubs and activities. Not to mention, the flexibility of online learning allows families more time to pursue other social events and extra-curricular activities.

We have learned that students of all ages can thrive in an online environment, but that doesn’t mean it’s right for every child. I encourage parents interested in virtual school to do their research by attending an information session, speaking with an enrolled family and asking questions. Parents only get one chance to set a foundation for their child’s education and should explore every option.

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