Why rural Virginia districts are teaming up to launch virtual academy

Radford City Schools lost a significant number for students to competing districts and private companies that offered virtual learning alternatives
By: | February 25, 2021
A Radford City Schools music teacher leads a virtual piano lesson.A Radford City Schools music teacher leads a virtual piano lesson.

Radford City Schools lost about 80 students—a significant number for the rural division—to online learning options offered by competing districts and private companies when this COVID-disrupted school year began.

Budget-wise, the 1,600-student district, which has remained largely in-person this year, also lost $7,000 in funding for each of those students who left, Superintendent Robert Graham says.

In response, the district partnered with a private company to ramp up its online offerings, and recouped much of the funding it lost by enrolling about 900 students from outside its boundaries, Graham says.

Former students also returned to the district from homeschooling and correspondence schools, he added.

“I have been truly amazed at what our staff has been able to do in such a short amount of time after schools shut in March,” Graham tells District Administration. “I’ve also been amazed at the grace and flexibility and patience our community has shown us during these difficult times.”

Radford City Schools has now joined forces with more than a dozen other districts in its rural Region 7 in southwest Virginia to launch a virtual academy that organizers expect will outlast COVID.

Leaders of the districts are now interviewing providers, including the Virginia Department of Education, to operate the academy. The districts will set eligibility requirements and curriculum, among other aspects of the academy.

More from DA: Learning loss beats COVID as top school reopening concern

Another goal for the academy to reduce the burden on teachers who have had to teach in-person and online simultaneously this school year, says Keith Perrigan, superintendent of Bristol Virginia Public Schools, another member of the consortium.

Though most Radford City Schools students are attending in-person this year, the district plans to help launch a virtual academy in 2021-22.

Though most Radford City Schools students are attending in-person this year, the district plans to help launch a virtual academy in 2021-22.

The academy, which is likely to attract several thousand students or more, will have its own instructors dedicated to online instruction, Perrigan says.

“It became pretty apparent after using that model for a year that we needed a better plan for next year,” he says. “But trying to do it [district by district] would have been an insurmountable task.”

There are also business considerations behind the academy’s creation. “If we don’t offer virtual, there are private companies waiting in wings to do it,” Perrigan says. 

‘For those who thrive’

About 30% of Bristol’s students have chosen online learning this year and a survey indicate that about half that number want to remain virtual next school year.

Perrigan and his colleagues have worked with the state legislature to put some stipulations in place when families choose online over in-person learning. Administrators want to prevents families from going virtual just to put more distance between themselves and the schools.

More from DA: Statewide virtual schools keep students with disabilities connected

Peregian would prefer to see the latter group of students return in-person, even after the academy launches, he says.

“We want to make it available for those students who thrive in the virtual environment,” Perrigan says. “For those students who are not engaged, we want to reconnect.”

The online experience this year has proven to Perrigan that in-person learning remains the superior option for most students, he adds.

“Everybody is excited to get back to in-person learning,” he says. “One thing that has come out of this is how important those in-person connections are. That’s where real learning occurs—when you can see eyebrows raised, when you can see the a-ha moments happening.”

Interested in edtech? Keep up with DA's Future of Education Technology Conference®.