Union Public Schools is greatly expanding its virtual educational offerings for students in grades 6-12 in a pilot program that will debut for the 2019-20 school year. Where previous programs have limited the number of online classes students can take, the expanded program – called Union Virtual – will enable students selected for the program to take as many as 100 percent of their courses online. They will also have the option to take one elective course – like Fine Arts or athletics – in a face-to-face setting.
Union Virtual is free of charge to students accepted into the program. Participating students will be issued a school-owned laptop for use while enrolled. In its first year, the program will be limited to 100 students.
Union Virtual is based in the Union Innovation Lab located at 6235 S. Mingo. All students need home internet access 6-8 hours per day in order to receive instruction and complete assignments. Union can provide a portable MiFi device that will allow the student to work from home.
The program targets students who live in the district, but may not be enrolled at Union today, according to Gart Morris, Executive Director of Instructional Technology. “Living within our boundary are students who are currently homeschooled or ones who haven’t been served well by traditional brick and mortar schools. At the same time, these students may crave the opportunity to participate in extracurricular activities like band, orchestra, cheer or athletics. By enrolling in Union Virtual, they are also a member of their grade-level appropriate school, with the ability to participate in the full array of clubs, programs and activities offered at their school site. No other virtual program can compete with the Union experience.”
All students accepted into Union Virtual are required to take six rigorous hours of instruction per day. Students will be able to proceed at their own pace with an option to work ahead and progress at a faster rate if they desire. Most instruction will occur online, but every student is assigned a certified teacher who will monitor their progress, provide assistance as needed, and will be the point of contact between the student, parent and their grade-level school site.
This virtual offering is designed for students who are highly motivated and have strong parental support of academics at home. It is not for students who struggle academically; however, it may be a good option for students who struggle with social/emotional issues. Union encourages students to talk with their teachers and counselors to determine if Union Virtual is the best option for them.
To be eligible for Union Virtual, students in grades 6-12 this fall must live in the district, be enrolled full-time with Union Public Schools, and may not be enrolled in any other program or school (private, online or homeschool). Once their application has been accepted, they must be enrolled with Union no later than August 9, 2019. The deadline for application is August 1, 2019.
Applicants will be evaluated based on academic performance, attendance, motivation, and home academic support. No more than 100 students will be admitted to the Union Virtual pilot program.
Board hears update on Union Virtual pilot program
January 20, 2020 – Gart Morris, executive director of Instructional Technology, provided an update on Union Virtual, a pilot program the district debuted in the fall that provides expanded virtual learning offerings for students in grades 6-12. Where previous programs were a blended model that limited the number of online classes students can take, Union Virtual enables students selected for the program to take as many as 100% of their courses online. They will also have the option to take elective courses – like Fine Arts or athletics – in a face-to-face setting.
Unlike the blended model, Union Virtual does not require a weekly in-person “check-in” attendance requirement. Union Virtual has a shared teacher/facilitator through the Aspire program, Angie Goins, who checks in with students and has regular office hours where students can get extra help.
“We currently have 30 to 35 students involved in six classes each, across six grade levels,” said Morris. “Altogether, that is 220 individual courses. If there is a subject that Angie can’t help with, she refers students to other teachers for assistance.”
Content providers for Union’s program are Edgenuity and the Florida Virtual curriculum. Morris said Union Virtual is strictly limited to students in grades 6-12. “We didn’t feel like serving elementary students was a best practice on this,” he said.
Amy McCready, associate director of Union Adult Learning Center, coordinates Union Virtual, working closely with counselors to ensure students have the necessary courses to meet requirements. “Students can take five classes and one elective, or four courses and two electives,” said Morris. “The student may say, ‘I want to take chemistry in person,’ and we allow that to happen.”
Morris said the program appears to be most effective for those who have made good academic progress in face-to-face classes. “They tend to transition well to virtual. Conversely, those who struggled in regular school tend to struggle in virtual. Our experience has borne this out.”
Office hours are offered at both offered at both the Union Freshman Academy and the Innovation Lab. First semester, the program served 38 students enrolled in 218 courses. Second semester has 36 students enrolled in 216 courses.
Union Virtual has clear benefits that make it superior to other virtual programs. “First, there is greater academic support, and it is an easier transition back to traditional schooling if Union Virtual doesn’t work for the student,” said Morris. “Also, Union’s vast number of elective options – band, orchestra, choir, and athletics – yet students can still be in Union Virtual.”
Morris said students and parents can expect “honest counseling” when weighing the merits of virtual vs. traditional school. “Charter virtual schools are not going to counsel students not to enroll in their programs. Union, however, is going to work with parents to make the choice that best serves the student. If we don’t think they will be successful in virtual, we will not counsel them toward that option.”
Union’s program is more rigorous and comes with higher expectation, so does not allow prescriptive testing in order for students to “test out” of a course. “The research has not proven that to be an effective option,” said Morris.
“We need to ask ourselves if we are filling student needs in the best way possible. We are seeing more students who are struggling who are applying to Union Virtual. The struggling brings with it a lot of baggage. Students are looking for something to give them a little hope, a little success. If we can get them through one online course, we can try another one.”