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‘Faces behind the screens’
by Garrett E. Valenzuela
Aug 20, 2013 | 3184 views | 0 0 comments | 13 13 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Tribune photo by Garrett Valenzuela -- Nevada Connections Academy teachers and administrators learn and practice 'live lessons' Tuesday morning at the Sparks office in preparation for the first day of school for the online charter system.
Tribune photo by Garrett Valenzuela -- Nevada Connections Academy teachers and administrators learn and practice 'live lessons' Tuesday morning at the Sparks office in preparation for the first day of school for the online charter system.
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Back-to-school season maybe in the rear-view mirror of Washoe County School District facilities, but it is just beginning for teachers, administrators and students at Nevada Connections Academy (NCA), a virtual charter school servicing Kindergarten through 12th grade students throughout the state.

The first day of school for NCA students and teachers is less than five days away, and new principal Steve Werlein and his staff at the Sparks-based location were buzzing with excitement Tuesday morning as they bounced from training sessions to phone conversations with students and families.

Preparation for the first day of school was a little different around the NCA offices, according to Special Education teacher Robin Hughes who was busy calling families to set up schedules for personal calls throughout the school year Tuesday morning.

“Right now it is about calling my students and making that connection with them at home,” said Hughes, who is entering her sixth year as a Special Education teacher at NCA. “I go to the students with a lot of our back-to-school stuff and make sure they know they can contact me with anything they need.”

Werlein agreed that adjustment was needed upon entering NCA but said he expects the upcoming year to build upon previous successes the online school has achieved, which include graduating 98 percent of high school students in 2011.

“I think we are going to see, really, this model reach its potential in terms of being able to individualize education for kids,” Werlein said of the upcoming year. “I think that the progress the staff has made over the last couple of years is great and we are going to continue on that, and I really want the public to see us not just as a virtual school but as an educational option for kids that need something beyond a big, 2,000-kid mega-school.”

The NCA follows the state guidelines of the Performance Framework and standardized testing, but students manage all their content online while interacting with teachers via phone, email and live lessons. Bob Reader, a former WCSD long-term substitute, has taught history and social studies at NCA for about five years and he said removing the “bricks and mortar” from his place of teaching comes with advantages and challenges.

“In a bricks-and-mortar school a significant amount of time is classroom management,” Reader said. “You have to make sure kids are paying attention, make sure they are not doing Twitter under the table and then make sure you are getting them into the lesson plan. Here, you don’t have to worry about that.

“They will get a call from a teacher and we will monitor them, and if they are doing fine we will still call them. One of the reasons we do that is to verify they are learning the curriculum. Sometimes you will have a kid go to their brother and get an answer or go to the internet and some of the kids will read it, spout it back and then forget it. Those are all things we try to control.”

Reader said data analysis aids NCA teachers in helping struggling students who may struggle with certain subjects or methods of learning. He added that the live lesson mode of teaching brings opportunities for students to supplement regular book work in an interactive way.

“We have live lessons once a week per class where I try to supplement what they are getting in the curriculum,” he said. “Typically, in a physical classroom, the teacher will be up there lecturing, and sometimes trying to do something interactive with the students, but primarily it is giving them what is already in their textbook. I try to get away from that.

“Sometimes I will get them to latch onto the big picture. They are going to get a lot of facts and dates, but I give them some bigger scales to look at the smaller concepts we are discussing. When you are new to teaching, you tend to rely on what you know and re-spout what you know, and they don’t need that. That is something I have learned already.”

On the Special Education side, Hughes said it can be challenging to connect with students who are unable to physically see her during a lesson or supplemental instruction. Because her students can suffer from a broad range of disabilities, she said her best tactic is simply being prepared for the continually unexpected.

“It is always something different, and it is always something,” Hughes said with a laugh. “There are always weird things that come up and they can’t always be anticipated so you have to be able to problem solve as you go. You always think about what is best for the student and what we have to best help them.

“Some are very confused with the system and for some it is their first time in online school, so we help them set up routines before school starts. We have no bells so getting them into their own time management and helping them in self-monitoring things is very important.”

All NCA teachers and administrators attend “off-campus field trips” during the year held in Reno, Las Vegas and various locations, a strategy Werlein said can be social and educational for the students and families. He said attendance for he and his staff is crucial to connecting with families for continued success.

“The quality of interactions students have are, I think, far greater than what they would get a traditional district school,” Werlein said. “We try to attend as many events as we can and some administrators do live chat sessions where parents can ask questions or address concerns.

“We do what we can to not only get our presence out there but to also let the parents know that there are faces behind these screens. When you do come to an event, you will get a face with the name and that is crucial because otherwise you are doing nothing more than customer service and answering questions.”

Nevada Connections Academy is located at 175 Salomon Circle, Suite 201, in Sparks. More information about the school can be found at www.connectionsacademy.com/nevada-virtual-school/home.
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