Fort Smith schools to seek continuation of virtual learning academy

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 360 views 

The Fort Smith Public School Board of Education agreed to allow the district to apply for a charter school license that will allow Fort Smith Virtual Academy to continue a virtual learning option for students beginning with the 2022-23 school year.

The vote was held Monday (March 8) night during a called board meeting.

“What we’re looking for is the district conversion charter school, which is still a public school option. But it also then belongs to Fort Smith Public Schools and draws its students from within our boundaries,” said Dr. Samantha Hall, assistant director of innovation.

Fort Smith Virtual Academy will provide “an equitable, challenging educational experience by engaging families and community partners as we prepare (kindergarten through eighth) grade students to embrace their roles in our culturally diverse community and rapidly changing world.

“FSVA will provide students with flexible learning choices, accelerated learning opportunities, real- world experiences and support to overcome challenging circumstances,” the FSPS intent to apply for an Arkansas charter school license says.

The school would have more flexibility than a traditional school, Hall said. The license, if approved by the state, will be good for 10 years, though the state will come in and monitor the school regularly, she said. The proposed school will offer a virtual learning experience blended with real-world experiences that are differentiated to meet the needs of a diverse population, the application states. It will provide a public school option for students who are homeschooled, medically fragile, seeking accelerated or unique learning opportunities, or who have other situations keeping them from succeeding in a traditional school setting, Hall said.

The curriculum will include core classes and grade-appropriate electives and will be housed in the Peak Innovation Center. Organizers are looking at ways to have in-person meetings, once restrictions connected with the COVID-19 pandemic allow, that will allow students more social interactions, Hall said. Students wanting to participate in activities, including band, choir and athletics will continue to need to be at campus for those.

“We don’t know what it’s going to be like after COVID. That’s really what this is about. I think there are a lot of key learnings that we have learned that have opened up other possibilities to kids that this just fits better,” said Board President Bill Hanesworth.

The district is still considering whether to make the school kindergarten through eighth grade or kindergarten through 12th grade. Both FSPS high schools are Schools of Innovation, which allows them to offer a virtual option of school to students already. But there may be benefits to making the charter school K-12, said Martin Mahan, deputy superintendent.

“Our biggest different thing (from FSPS traditional curriculum) besides the virtual would be to have a career focus, a community service/career focus,” Hall said.

Kindergarten through fifth grade would explore ways for community service and the sixth- through eighth-grade model would actually be able to begin community service activities, she added. The district has looked at models for the River Valley Virtual School through Van Buren Public Schools and Fayetteville Virtual School through Fayetteville Public Schools and is building their program along some of those ideas, Hall said.

The school board also approved the district to submit an application for a digital learning waver for the 2021-22 school year to allow digital learning as it is, with some modifications.

In other business, the district discussed plans for senior prom and graduation and hired Dr. Tiffany Bone as the assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, a position vacated when Mahan became the deputy superintendent in January. Superintendent Dr. Terry Morawski told the board that administration has received a lot of feedback from parents and students regarding the events and will continue to review ideas on what can be done.

Although Gov. Asa Hutchinson relaxed COVID restrictions, making them recommendations instead, the city of Fort Smith extended existing COVID safety protocols for all city permits involving outdoor large venues. The COVID safety protocols will continue through May 31, at which time, the city will re-evaluate the policy with regard to information and data on the pandemic, a city news release said.

Morawski said he believed direction would come from the Arkansas Department of Education on large events in the coming days and the administration would look at those and city restrictions before making any decision on events.

Bone is the assistant superintendent in the Jacksonville North Pulaski County School District in Jacksonville, Ark. She has also served as an assistant superintendent of Pine Bluff Schools and as a principal in Bryant Public Schools. While she was completing her doctorate, she worked as a visiting professor and principal coach at Arkansas Tech University. She earned her doctoral degree in educational leadership from Arkansas Tech University in Russellville. Bone will begin with FSPS June 1.

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