K-12 virtual academies and K-12 online schools can have a divisive view within many education communities. Whether through the lens of the COVID-19 pandemic’s forced digital shift or through the longer history of virtual academies that have existed for a while, these schools can sometimes be seen as an avenue of learning loss for learners. However, not all K-12 virtual academies—nor all learners who participate in them—are the same. With this in mind, let’s explore the impact K-12 online schools can have for populations often overlooked or under-resourced in education.
The equity and access divide
While much has been said about potential shortcomings some K-12 learners experienced during the forced online curriculum of the COVID-19 pandemic, two important distinctions are often left out: 1) non-virtual academies (i.e., in-person classrooms) were forced to hurriedly adopt band-aid approaches to online learning—including the use of web conferencing software and other non-academic-focused technologies—without proper training, time to shift their curricula, or knowing how long it would last; and 2) all students, regardless of their technical skill sets, availability, or family circumstances, were forced into this approach.
With this in mind, it’s no wonder that many students experienced learning loss and struggled to adapt; however, this doesn’t mean that—when used correctly and in the right circumstances—K-12 virtual academies aren’t the solution for many learners. In fact, for many students caught in the equity and access gap, K-12 online schools are an effective and helpful option.
Per Chatterji, Campbell, and Quirk’s 2021 article exploring gaps in advanced coursework opportunities and outcomes, the team found “National data from the Civil Rights Data Collection show that students who are Black, Indigenous, and other non-Black people of color (BIPOC) are not enrolled in AP courses at rates comparable to their white and Asian peers and experience less success when they are—and the analysis for this report finds this to be true even when they attend schools with similar levels of AP course availability.”
Knowing these gaps exist over various demographic divides, how can K-12 virtual academies help bridge this gap?
Enhancing access and bridging the gap
For many learners, traditional in-classroom experiences do not yield successful results. Whether the result of physical, mental, or social circumstances, these individuals not only have fewer opportunities and access to results-improving resources, they often aren’t at schools that can effectively meet their needs in the first place. While many K-12 online schools were initially developed for learners who needed time and distance-based flexibility for sports, entertainment jobs, and other less-traditional lifestyle circumstances, this platform has become vital for many students who are at a disadvantage based on the resources of their immediately available in-person classrooms.
For many learners who benefit from K-12 virtual academies, their closest proximity schools aren’t always equipped to help them succeed. This can stem from a variety of reasons. Perhaps the school district doesn’t have educators with proper certifications to help students with certain physical or mental disabilities or limitations. Additionally, a school might not have a curriculum that allows learners to seize on their passions and grow their skill sets. Whatever the reason, K-12 online schools erase the physical barriers limiting a student’s opportunities, especially when those learners have ready access to devices and the internet, allowing them to connect.
These circumstances can be surrounding the opportunity to provide basic, fundamental educational paths, or, as the University of California at San Diego has found, it can be about connecting learners with their passion even when those offerings aren’t in a students’ geographic backyard, per UC San Diego Today:
“To help address issues of access and inclusion, as well as other critical gaps in college STEM education, UC San Diego has launched one of the few programs aimed at training students in the emerging field of STEM research education—and it’s done almost entirely online.”
Overcrowding, underfunding, and every issue in between can keep learners who are in under-privileged populations from having access not only to the necessary coursework they are seeking out, but the additional resources necessary for them to successfully navigate that curriculum. K-12 virtual academies, especially those that have learned how to successfully scale their offerings, can not only make their coursework available to these populations, but can also do so in more affordable ways because of said scalability, as well as other funding opportunities made available.
Succeeding within opportunities
For many students who must navigate physical, mental, and social barriers—and even those who have access to defining opportunities—the issue isn’t access, it’s equity. Just as noted via the Civil Rights Data Collection above, many populations may have access to important academic opportunities; however, they aren’t provided the same resources within those experiences to succeed. K-12 online schools not only bring their curriculum to all involved, but because the resources necessary to navigate those opportunities must also be provided virtually, all participants have a theoretically equal ability to engage them.
When K-12 virtual academies are the answer
It’s important to note that, while K-12 virtual academies are promising applicability to many circumstances where traditional in-person classrooms cannot, they are not the answer for any student who is having trouble in traditional classroom settings. When done correctly, and in circumstances where access and equity can be improved, K-12 online schools can have a tremendous impact on numerous populations. K-12 virtual academies still have their own hurdles and limitations. However, especially as virtual classroom platforms have continued to provide enhanced technologies to improve the online academic experience, this approach cannot be discounted as a viable path to aid vital populations who have otherwise been disenfranchised by more traditional educational settings.
Interested in learning how virtual classrooms can make online learning more successful? Looking to explore adding a K-12 virtual academy branch to your school district? Chat with a Class team member today, and let’s take your students’ access, equity, and success to the next level.