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Virtual school prepares to open in Walpole

K-12 classes offered through the Internet

A new public school opens in East Walpole next month, with freshly hired teachers and administrators, a fully developed curriculum, and a spirited academic mission.

What sets apart the school for kindergarten through 12th-grade students is that none will pass through its doors. Instead, all of the pupils enrolled at TEC Connections Academy Commonwealth Virtual School will take their courses online from home, communicating electronically with teachers based out of the Walpole building.

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The academy, referred to as TECCA, is the first new virtual school to be created since adoption of a state law in early 2013 aimed at opening the way for more of them in Massachusetts. It becomes the second virtual school overall in the state, joining one that has been operating in Greenfield since 2010.

TECCA was proposed by The Education Cooperative, a Dedham-based collaborative that provides services to 16 area school districts, including an online course program. The school, approved in February by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, is open to all Massachusetts students, but those from the cooperative’s districts get preference for 5 percent of the enrollment.

“I’m very excited about the possibilities for children across all of Massachusetts and particularly in our 16 member districts,” said Jean Kenney, assistant school superintendent in Walpole and the vice chairwoman of the new TECCA board. “What we have planned and hope to sustain is a rigorous online environment that will meet the needs of all students.”

Like other virtual schools, TECCA will target children “who for whatever reason haven’t had successful experiences going to school,” said Elizabeth McGonagle, executive director of The Education Cooperative. She said that could be “due to medical conditions or they may have been bullied or they may be very bright and have not been challenged and want to accelerate.”

“It’s a wonderful environment because it’s flexible,” McGonagle said. Students can learn at their own pace and as a result “aren’t rushed. . . . They have assignments, but the clock isn’t ticking, the bell isn’t ringing at the end of a period. Some students really respond to that.”

The three-year certificate allows the school to open with 1,000 students, and reach maximum enrollment of 2,000 the third year. The school, which recently began accepting applications, will be funded by a $6,700-per-pupil tuition paid by the student’s home district.

While the two institutions plan a close working relationship, TECCA is independent from the cooperative, with its own board of trustees. It recently contracted with a Maryland-based firm, Connections Academy, to run the day-to-day operations of the school.

In August, The Education Collaborative is relocating from its existing space in Dedham to a newly leased building at 141 Mansion Drive in East Walpole. Part of the building will be subleased to TECCA, which is now hiring a planned staff of four administrators and 28 teachers.

While relatively new to Massachusetts, virtual schooling has been growing in popularity nationally, according to David Schmidt, vice president of Connections Academy.

His own firm in 2002 began managing two virtual schools and today runs 26 of them in 23 states. Nationwide, Schmidt estimated that 250,000 students in about 30 states are enrolled full time in virtual schools.

“The best public schools can’t always serve the types of school situations that a virtual school can,” he said. “We get a lot of artists and student-athletes who need flexible schedules. We also get our share of struggling learners, as well as gifted and talented students.”

The Education Cooperative began offering online courses in 2009, McGonagle said. “We truly believed every student should have an online experience before they graduate, because you go into college or a career and you need those skills.” Today, the program offers 40 courses.

When the state law was passed, the cooperative applied to open a virtual school, seeing it as a way to expand online learning options for their students and others.

“This is a great opportunity for some of our kids — it really fits their needs,” McGonagle said. She said the cooperative is also excited that students from its districts and others will be able to take single courses from the virtual school — provided the sending district agrees. The cooperative’s own online academy will continue to offer courses.

The new school’s courses are those the Connections Academy offers at its existing schools, but with some changes to align them with Massachusetts standards. Instruction will include both interactive lessons that the students perform on their own and group sessions among the teacher and students done by video web or telephone conferencing.

While the notion of children learning without the structure of a classroom may seem improbable to some, organizers say the virtual school will feature close student-teacher interaction. Teachers will provide the students with customized daily lesson plans, and closely monitor how the child is doing. Students and teachers can communicate by e-mail and telephone.

Each student will also be assigned an at-home “learning coach” — usually the parent or guardian — and TECCA will offer clubs and field trips for students to interact with one another.

Susan Porter said she was at first skeptical, but she has come to see the value of online instruction from seeing how it has benefited her son, Billy.

An eighth-grader at Johnson Middle School in Walpole, Billy, 14, is taking an online algebra honors course through The Education Collaborative’s online program. Without that option, he would have had to wait until next year to take the class, which is offered to freshmen at the high school.

The course has allowed her son “to accelerate his learning . . . and not have to wait for 25 other students to master concepts, which was wasting valuable learning time for him,” Porter said by e-mail. “Also, the course enables him to go into more depth, and extend his learning with extra problem solving and real life connections.”

Porter sees pros and cons, however, of an all-virtual school, noting that it offers students independence and flexibility, but not the chance to interact with teachers and build interpersonal skills. “A mix between both school types would be ideal,” she said.

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.
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