Destiny McCray

Douglas County resident Destiny McCray shows the laptop computer she uses to access her classwork for Georgia Connections Academy.

Destiny McCray was not happy about school and her mother knew it.

Sonya McCray saw her daughter was withdrawing because other students bullied Destiny —impeding her daughter’s academic progress.

After researching alternatives, Sonya pulled her daughter from public school in seventh grade and enrolled her in Georgia Connections Academy, which allows her to take all her courses online.

“When she was able to be in the comfort of her home, she was not being distracted by the children in her class,” Mrs. McCray said.

Destiny recently began her senior year in Georgia Connections rather than the Douglas County school for which she is zoned at her Villa Rica home. She is considering attending Kennesaw State University to major in psychology, she said.

Georgia Connections is a free, public charter school totally online and open to students in grades kindergarten through 12 statewide. The school gets public funding but is operated by its own board under an operating plan the State Charter Schools Commission regularly reviews.

Its 2017-2018 academic year began Aug. 7 for more than 3,800 students statewide. About 100 Douglas County students and 120 Paulding County students are enrolled in Georgia Connections for the 2017-18 school year, according to the school’s records.

The 17-year-old said she has not missed the social aspect of a traditional school because of the school’s emphasis on regular interaction with other students. Meanwhile, her studies have included traditional high school courses as well as courses covering British literature and the legal environment of business, she said.

The ability to contact teachers and academic coaches almost around the clock means she is able to work at her own pace, Destiny said.

“You don’t have to stay stuck on a concept,” she said.

Georgia Connections executive director Heather Robinson said online education “provides several advantages for students and parents who are seeking a different approach to learning” and gives a student a “learning environment that is free from distractions.”

“Our students complete their schooling in an environment that is free from most of the social pressures and barriers that are sometimes found in a traditional school setting,” she said.

She said students have a voice in their educational programming based on their academic strengths and weaknesses “along with consideration of their personal interests.”

“Learning coaches are able to manage their student's schedule and learning space so that academics are the sole focus for each school day,” she said.

Georgia Connections students “have access to their teachers via phone, email, and live course sessions — and teachers are certainly a key to our success," Robinson said.

Students can participate in music, art, educational technology, physical education, and world languages classes beginning in kindergarten, she said.

“The ability to maintain these types of course offerings in addition to the traditional course offerings provides the total learning experience for students," she said.

Students who do well in virtual schools “do so because they are able to focus on learning,” she said.

“Our students are able to enrich and remediate within the same course,” Robinson said.

Ben Scafidi, a professor of economics and director of the Education Economics Center at Kennesaw State, served as an advisor to Georgia governors from both parties. He currently is a senior fellow with Ed Choice and the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

Scafidi also formerly served as chairman of the state Charter Schools Commission and voted to approve the charter for Georgia Connections before its 2010 opening.

He recalled being “very skeptical” an online education could help secondary school students when Gov. Sonny Perdue asked him to study the issue in 2003. He later discovered it could help some students who face barriers to learning in traditional schools, such as attention or bullying issues, he said.

“My view is it’s a really good option for some kids,” Scafidi said.

He said parents need to have enough time available to help their child with the program. Students also need to be mature enough to be self-starters and motivated enough to keep on track with school work schedules, he said.

One problem the school reportedly has faced since its origins in 2010 is low student test scores, especially on the state’s college and career readiness indicator.

An Atlanta newspaper reported the State Charter Schools Commission in May and June conducted performance reviews on Georgia Connections and other charter schools, including Georgia Cyber Academy and Graduation Achievement Charter High School.

The commission reportedly will consider whether to renew charters that expire after the upcoming school year after seeing College and Career Ready Performance Index scores for the 2016-2017 school year.

Robinson said Georgia Connections has only operated for seven years and should not be compared to traditional public schools.

“We have a unique set of challenges,” she said.

She said the school’s leadership is constantly working to address problem areas, such as a high attrition rate among students who enter the program and cannot adjust to the unique educational method.

Another area reportedly has been technology issues which limited the use of test scores to diagnose student achievement issues. Robinson said those issues have been addressed and should not be a problem this school year.

Mrs. McCray said her daughter has not had problems with the school. She said Destiny’s test scores have been good.

She added such an educational alternative is needed for students who seek a way to concentrate totally on their studies.

“I can’t find anything bad to say about it,” she said.

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