What if students could forgo khaki pants and polo shirts and head for school in their pajamas? What if they didn’t have to guess the identity of the brown stuff on their lunch tray and ate Mom’s home cooking for lunch every day?
What if they weren’t distracted by the class clown and didn’t fret about being bullied? What if there was no homework that dragged on past bedtime? And what if they received an education that was tailored to their abilities and needs?
It’s those characteristics that parents apparently are looking for in Louisiana Connections Academy, the first statewide charter school offering online classes to students in grades K-12.
Whether Connections Academy will deliver remains to be seen. The virtual school is in its inaugural year, so there is no way to measure its success, though graduates from its programs in 22 other states and the national academy have gone on to such colleges and universities as Harvard, Cornell, Vassar and Wellesley.
But there certainly is a demand for what the school has to offer. Some 2,000 Louisiana families vied for a mere 500 slots; many remain on a waiting list, hopeful that others will drop out and free up space. More than 100 children from Baton Rouge attend the new online academy.
“We had no idea we’d have this kind of interest,” says Louisiana Connections Academy School Board President Wade Henderson, a film and television producer and director. “We thought we’d have a good solid demand, enough to populate the school at 500 in the first year. The funny thing about it is, other than informational sessions all around the state, we didn’t even really do any heavy advertising.”
Louisiana Connections Academy is one of 102 charter schools currently offering classes in the state, and one of 16 new startups or conversions authorized by the Louisiana Board of Elementary & Secondary Education. Louisiana has one other online institution: the Louisiana Virtual Charter Academy, for students in grades K-10. Combined, the two schools teach about 1,600 public-school students.
The Connections Academy concept was started by Sylvan Ventures, a venture capital investment arm for Sylvan Learning Systems, the for-profit afterschool tutoring company. A decade ago, the firm started the business unit to create a turnkey virtual school program. The first two schools opened the following year.
In 2004, Connections Academy was sold to an investor group led by Apollo Management, a private equity investment firm founded in 1990 by former Drexel Burnham Lambert banker Leon Black. One of the largest private equity firms in the world, Apollo also owns AMC Entertainment, Norwegian Cruise Line, casino giant Caesars Entertainment Corporation, Coldwell Banker and Century 21 Real Estate.
The company now operates tuition-free public schools under management contracts from charter schools or school districts in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin and Wyoming. Two years ago, Connections Academy opened its own private institution, National Connections Academy, that is available everywhere.
In 2011, a new corporate entity, Connections Education, was established to meet the growing demand for K-12 online learning. The new company has two divisions, Connections Academy and Connections Learning, which provides online courses to traditional schools and those who are homeschooled.
Louisiana Connections Academy teachers don’t spend their days in front of a blackboard in a classroom, but rather in front of a computer in their cubicle in an office suite at 8281 Goodwood Blvd. They have no carpool lines to manage, no cafeteria or playground duty, no teams to coach and no clubs to advise.
Their students are spread across the state from Shreveport to New Orleans, sitting in their bedrooms, kitchens, offices or other designated learning spaces at home. They are supervised by a parent, guardian or other learning coach, who sees to it that assignments are completed. Teacher and students communicate through e-mail and web conferencing.
The students work at their own pace and schedule. If they don’t feel like doing science first thing in the morning, they can do math instead. And once the school day is finished, the work is finished. No homework.
There are no Friday night football games, pep rallies or homecoming dances for the Louisiana Connections Academy students. But that’s where the differences end.
Students are enrolled in the same classes as their peers: math, science, language arts and foreign languages. They can still join clubs, write for the school literary magazine and take part in the local science fair. They take field trips with their classmates. They still have to prove they’ve mastered the same basic academic skills. And they’re eligible for TOPS.
Principal Caroline Wood, a former dropout prevention coordinator for the Louisiana Department of Education, says Connections Academy students range from at-risk children to gifted children to athletes in training and everyone in between who, for one reason or another, isn’t attending a traditional brick-and-mortar school.
Without the distractions that educators often face, Wood says, teachers are able to focus solely on the performance of each student, whether they are struggling or excelling in a certain area.
“We instantly notice when students are not successful or need more challenging lessons on a daily basis,” Wood says. “As soon as a student doesn’t do well on a quiz or an assignment, it’s dealt with immediately. Children cannot slip through the cracks.”
Last month, the academy dropped plans to ask BESE’s permission to expand its enrollment to 1,000 after it became clear the request would be denied. New rules have put charter schools in the state under tighter scrutiny, and Connections Academy hasn’t had time to prove itself in Louisiana.
Under the terms of its agreement with the state, enrollment will rise to 750 in 2012-13 and to 1,000 in 2013-14.
The Hubbs family was paying big bucks to educate Brandon and Jacob at a private school. At one point, they realized they were depleting the boys’ college funds.
Two years ago, Donna Hubbs quit her job and started homeschooling the boys, but their age differences proved a challenge. Then, along came Louisiana Connections Academy.
Now, 15-year-old Brandon, a high-school freshman, takes classes at a computer set up in the mother-in-law suite; 11-year-old Jacob, a sixth-grader, is set up in the keeping room next to the kitchen.
They’re logged in by 9 a.m. and are usually done with their lessons no later than 4 p.m. Hubbs serves them home-cooked meals for breakfast and lunch.
“We always felt so rushed before,” she says. “I was throwing cereal at them in the morning and saying, ‘Hurry up. Get in the car.’ And I never had time to cook. Now we always eat together.”
As for the extracurricular activities, both Brandon and Jacob have more time for tennis and guitar lessons, art classes and hanging out with their friends.
Brandon, who wants to be a veterinarian or a video game designer, says online schooling isn’t that much different from what he was used to. He and Jacob say they’d like to finish their education here.
“I like the way it’s set up,” says Jacob, whose favorite subject is math. “I don’t have to wait for the other kids to finish their work.”