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Educational Innovation in Action: One91 Virtual Academy

Educational Innovation in Action: One91 Virtual Academy

How District 191 built a future-focused online school to best serve students.

Kirenza Cooper’s third grade students arrive on time for their 9:30 a.m. math class. She greets everyone as they enter, and refers to them as “our friends” as she gets ready to launch today’s dive into the eight times tables. Students are excited to be there, immediately raising their hands and ready to share. They are given 45 seconds to gather what they need for today’s lesson – a white board and a marker – time that is marked by a countdown clock with upbeat music. 

Students show they are ready by holding their whiteboards up to the camera and Ms. Cooper launches today’s lesson on screen. The first problem involves solving for the price of a small popcorn in a pattern of numbers, so naturally a bunch of popcorn graphics surround her. A volunteer unmutes herself to read the problem to the group and everyone gets to work, letting the class know they are ready by putting their finger on their nose. A discussion begins about patterns in numbers and counting down from 89 by eights and the methods used to solve for what would be next in the pattern.  

The teacher pulls in the occasional visual aid from just off screen and students mouth along as they count together. Not everyone got the right answer but Ms. Cooper reminds the class that “mistakes allow us to learn and think about how we can fix it for next time” before she transitions to a brain break. Students jump up from their chairs to move along to a video to catch Pokemon.

It’s another wonderful day in class at One91 Virtual Academy. 

Virtual learning made better

The concept of learning from home is one that most people didn’t think much about until a few years ago. The urgent switch to the distance learning model for all students in 2020 brought this strategy to the spotlight, with districts like District 191 establishing standalone online schools to provide the option for students and their families beyond the pandemic. Director of Technology Rachel Gorton was part of distance learning as well as the shift to a permanent solution. 

“There is a perception that distance learning didn’t work during COVID, but we got a real understanding that some of our students found it as a beneficial way to learn and we wanted to improve it,” said Gorton. “Every student has a unique story about why One91 Virtual Academy is a good option for them including medical needs, family situations, or learning styles, and this is a viable option for the future for a lot of students and their families.”

Knowing that many students thrive in this environment, the district set out to create an option that follows the innovative Pathways model, supports students in a variety of ways, and adapts throughout a student’s time to allow for more independence. Teachers like Ms. Cooper in the elementary grades are seeing their students multiple times a day with grade levels getting to work together in some sessions and on their own in others. The daily schedule includes time with their specialists, virtual recess, and interventions for students who are needing an extra challenge, or extra support, as well as independent work time.  

“I have to be innovative in how I deliver content and I love finding ways to be engaging and exciting with the goal of making sure that kids keep loving learning,” said Cooper. “We have the same high expectations, we follow the district curriculum, and have the same standards and report cards as students who are physically in the classroom.” 

Paul Connell is a teacher and Technology Integrationist who has helped interface between the technology and curriculum departments to ensure the success of this program. He won a Community of Excellence Award for Innovation from the district in 2022 and helps coordinate the software and hardware needed for everyone to succeed.

“Innovation to me is looking forward and finding a better way to do things,” said Connell. “When we reflected on the pandemic, we knew some things were hard, but we also saw that there was an opportunity for our students and students across the state to experience great online learning, and it was really exciting.”

School without a school: How does it work?

Students enroll at One91 Virtual Academy for a lot of different reasons, and have to be able to work well independently and stay motivated. Some teachers are dedicated solely to the virtual academy while others split their time between the classroom setting and virtual teaching. Vista View Elementary serves as the physical hub with students able to attend school-wide events there and staff able to participate in professional development opportunities. There are even principals, like Dr. Angie Pohl who oversees Vista View Elementary and K-5 of One91 Virtual Academy. 

dr. angie pohl talks with a middle school student

“Our students are making such amazing connections with their teachers and each other and are learning and performing at the same level as students who are in the classroom,” said Dr. Pohl. “Families appreciate the flexibility and like that they are partners in their student’s learning. I feel like this is a model that works and that there are so many families that this is a great option for.”

While the elementary students are connecting with their teacher, specialists, interventionists, and their classmates throughout the day, older students have a little more independence. Middle school students have some scheduled meetings with their teachers, but are also given more flexibility to complete their assignments on their own. Students at the high school level take a different approach, with teachers publishing a weekly schedule of lessons, work, and due dates so students can establish their own plan for the week. While some may work on one subject at a time, others divide up the day with different classes with the option to connect with teachers during their office hours. Some students work during the day and do schooling in the evening, others spend time traveling for sports or activities, but thanks to the technology options available, they can find a system that works for them. 

“We are meeting students with the mode that works for them and that is exciting, '' said Connell. “We have built a great technology department with support from the community and technology levies, so we want to maximize those dollars and show that we are providing a service to our students and their families.” 

Students become familiar with a lot of different education applications including Seesaw, Schoology, Google Suite, Securely, EdPuzzle, PearDeck, WeVideo, and more. Every student has a Chromebook with options for hot spots to strengthen home internet connections if needed. 

Innovative and adaptive teaching and learning for the future

rachel gorton, paul connell and kirenza cooper

The technology team works hard to make the virtual learning experience as seamless as possible, taking support requests and working quickly to address them. Training is provided to teachers, and there is always an eye on where to go from here. As the instructional techniques change, the technology will adapt and so the program remains at the top level possible. 

“It is innovative just to be at home, in the hospital, or traveling but still fully connected to your classroom,” said Gorton. “Virtual learning is not for everyone, but some of our students really thrive there and our teachers are finding amazing ways to make connections.”

One91 Virtual Academy may look different in the future. Virtual and augmented reality environments could become more prevalent, hybrid options with students choosing how they want to access different classes based on their preferences and schedule, or supplemental options for high school students are all being discussed. 

“We can keep innovating and looking at curriculum and teaching strategies to make sure we are meeting needs and expectations while providing flexibility and individualized learning,” said Dr. Pohl. “It is wonderful seeing students able to do what they need to do in order to be comfortable and successful in their learning with so much support available.”

The main focus now is to provide an excellent opportunity for students to experience the Pathways approach with dedicated teachers supporting them no matter where they are. 

“When this was starting, I loved what we were offering compared to other online schools around us and I was just excited about what we were creating with the One91 experience,” said Cooper. “I knew it was more of a classroom experience. We are still a classroom community where we are supporting each other's thinking and collaborating, and that is really special.”