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11 area districts join new virtual school

TECCA will be holding public information sessions in Waltham, Lowell and Medford.

Barry Chin/Globe Staff

TECCA will be holding public information sessions in Waltham, Lowell and Medford.

A new public school drawing students from across the region, and the state, opens next month with freshly hired teachers and administrators, a fully developed curriculum, and a spirited academic mission.

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

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The academy, referred to as TECCA, is the first new virtual school to be created under a law adopted early last year to pave the way for more of them across the state. It becomes the second virtual school overall in Massachusetts, joining one that has been operating in Greenfield since 2010.

TECCA, which is slated to open Aug. 27, was proposed by the Education Cooperative, a Dedham-based collaborative that provides services to 16 area school districts, including an online course program. The participating districts include Dover and the Dover-Sherborn regional system, Framingham, Holliston, Hopkinton, Medfield, Millis, Natick, Needham, Sherborn, and Wayland.

The Walpole school, approved in February by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, is open to all Massachusetts students, but at least 5 percent must come from the Education Cooperative’s districts.

“I’m excited that the collaborative has been able to move forward and begin this very exciting chapter in online learning,” said Stacy L. Scott, the superintendent of Framingham’s school system. “We look forward to ways to utilize online learning in our district, and we certainly want to see that grow and expand over time.”

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, she said, 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 granted by the state board allows the school to open with 1,000 students, and reach its maximum enrollment of 2,000 for its third year. Based on the initial applications, officials expect about 600 students to be enrolled for the fall semester. Their home school districts will be required to pay $6,700 per pupil in tuition.

TECCA will also offer the chance to take individual courses. A fee that the cooperative received for sponsoring the school will pay for a limited number of students from its districts to take those courses; the districts would have to pay for any additional students. Students from outside the cooperative’s region can also take courses, provided their home district agrees to pay for them.

The virtual school is holding public information sessions next Wednesday and on Aug. 6 at the Hyatt House hotel in Waltham; next Thursday at the University of Massachusetts Lowell Inn & Conference Center; and Aug. 7 at Hyatt Place hotel in Medford, all starting at noon.

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

Next month, the Education Cooperative is relocating from its space in Dedham to the newly leased building on Mansion Drive in East Walpole. It will be sharing the building with TECCA, which plans a 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 company began managing two virtual schools in 2002 and today runs 26 of them in 23 states. Nationwide, Schmidt estimated, 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,” she said. Today, the program offers 40 courses.

Natick’s superintendent, Peter Sanchioni, said that when the Education Cooperative’s member districts heard the state would be allowing up to 10 virtual schools, they decided, “We might as well be one of the players — let’s do something really well and create something special. . . . If it’s going to be an option for our parents, let’s make our schools the most attractive option.”

Sanchioni, who chairs the TECCA board, said it might seem unusual for “superintendents from some of the most successful school districts in Massachusetts” to want to open a virtual school.

“That’s sort of antithetical to what we do,” he said. “However, we see this as a school for a special population of kids,” who for health or other reasons cannot attend regular schools. He said the new academy can also serve students who want to take individual TECCA courses.

“Now there are three options for students,” he said, referring to the chance to be full-time virtual students, to have a “blended” education that includes regular and online courses, and to attend the traditional school with no virtual classes.

The new school’s courses are those the Connections Academy offers at its other 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 with the teacher and students done by video or telephone conferencing.

While 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 customized daily lesson plans, and closely monitor how each 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 a parent or guardian — and TECCA will offer clubs and field trips as a way for students to interact with one another.

Susan Porter said she was skeptical at first, but now sees the value of online instruction after witnessing how it has benefited her son.

As an eighth-grader last year at Johnson Middle School in Walpole, Billy, 14, took an online algebra honors course through the Education Cooperative’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, Porter said.

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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