Even before the pandemic, Arkansas Connections Academy (ARCA) offered students unique home learning opportunities.
Gianna Sherry, a middle school math teacher at Arkansas Connections Academy, said Thursday that ARCA is a free online public school that serves students across the state and has been serving Arkansas K-12 students since 2016.
According to Sherry, the school started with 230 students and 12 staff in the state, but has grown to about 3,500 students and 120 staff by 2022, with an open cap of 5,500 students throughout the school year.
Sherry, who has a Masters of Arts in Educational Theory in Practice from Arkansas State University, began teaching in 2016.
She joined Arkansas Connections Academy in 2020 and said she loves teaching for ARCA.
“The advantage of teaching at an online school compared to a brick-and-mortar school is that the classes are tailored to each student’s needs,” Sherry said.
“Education is changing and this is a unique opportunity for each student to learn in their own way and in their own time,” she said, pointing out the difference and benefits between online public school and homeschooling.
“When students are homeschooled, the parents are the teachers,” she said. “However, with online public school, students not only benefit from their parents, but also from certified teachers who work with their parents to provide them with the best plan. They also get one-on-one meetings with their teachers and the benefit of flexible scheduling.”
So what is the Arkansas Connections Academy and how does it work?
Sherry said ARCA is the Arkansas branch of Pearson’s statewide program called Connections Academy, which serves 43 states across the country.
According to the Arkansas Connections Academy website, like all public schools nationwide, Connections Academy online schools and programs are part of the state-level public school systems, which means these accredited online schools have state requirements, including courses and participation and completion.
There are four key components that make up an online school, including: teacher support and involvement, the role of a parent or guardian as a learning coach, the virtual classroom experience, and interaction and socialization with peers.
Students have opportunities to interact with peers enrolled in the same courses through course discussion forums, as well as social opportunities to connect with their peers through optional after-school clubs, activities and field trips.
Sherry said the fostered socialization and time together is one of her favorite things about teaching for ARCA, particularly the field trips they take throughout the year.
“The field trips are a great way for students and parents to meet ARCA teachers,” she said. “The field trips give the children valuable social interaction and time with their peers.”
According to Sherry, there are a total of 12 field trips that all students across the state are invited to attend if they wish to come.
“We have planned one in the spring for the start of school, one in the fall for the end of the year and two field trips for each of the five regions, which are also open to all,” she said.
These five regions include Northeast Arkansas, Northwest Arkansas, Central Arkansas, Southeast Arkansas, and Southwest Arkansas.
A regional field trip was held Thursday at Forrest L. Wood Crowley’s Ridge Nature Center in Jonesboro, during which students and teachers listened to a bat presentation by Tracy Wiley of Blanchard Springs and viewed the exhibits. Students from Northeast Arkansas and Northwest Arkansas attended the event.
According to the Connections Academy website, a misconception is that online school is “tougher” than traditional school but is actually more customizable and individual; This means that the level of difficulty can be more easily adjusted to suit a child’s learning needs.
The flexible schedule also benefits families who travel frequently or have students with special needs. Sherry said that online training can also help with seemingly unsolvable problems like bullying and peer pressure.
ARCA is free of school fees and aligned with state educational standards.
In fact, Sherry said all required texts and instructional materials, either physical (usually mailed) or digital depending on the student’s grade level, are included and made available to all students at no additional cost.
However, there are some technological requirements. ARCA families are responsible for providing their own computer, internet service and printer.
Laptops and internet service support may be available for households that request and are approved a technical hardship exemption.
As in a traditional school, the families are responsible for the school materials such as notepads, writing utensils, printer cartridges, etc. themselves.