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Cyber learning takes flight

Going to school in pajamas is an option. So is going to school early in the morning, late in the evening or even on the weekend.

And, for the Fratini children in Hillsboro, going to school is just a matter of walking down the hallway in their own home.

Kyle, Gia and Allie Fratini are enrolled in the Oregon Connections Academy (ORCA), a K-12 online public school chartered by the Scio School District.by: HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: KATHY FULLER - Gia and Kyle Fratini check a thermometer in ice during a science lesson conducted at the kitchen counter.  They attend Oregon Connections Academy, an online charter school.

Each child is set up with a computer work station in a bedroom that’s been remade into a classroom by their mom, Lisa Fratini. Each computer is loaded with lessons in reading, writing, math, social studies and science.

The children navigate through their lessons at their own pace, with teachers available five days each week to help when needed, check their progress and even conduct “live” lessons via video conferencing.

Lisa Fratini found ORCA when Kyle, her oldest child, began reading at a very early age. She started looking into homeschooling and “stumbled upon an ad” in a local parenting magazine.

“Everything appealed to me. The freedom to be at home and have the structure, too.”

She has since enrolled both of her daughters in ORCA.

A school of choice

Online education is increasingly the school of choice for many families, and the reasons for that are varied.

There are more and more choices in online schooling each year. Hillsboro School District opened its own online option this year for students in grades 7-12, partly in hopes of bringing home-schooled students — and additional state funding — back into the district. With enrollment of 127 students in its inaugural year, HOA is poised to add grades 4-6 to its curriculum next year.

At the same time, the Hillsboro district as a whole lost 258 students to online charter schools this year, according to district communications director Beth Graser.

Alisha Carrington, 12th-grade advisory teacher at ORCA, says she has a variety of students with different activities and schedules that make online schooling a good fit.

Some of her students work full-time. Several others are talented ballet dancers who rehearse eight or more hours a day before a production. “They run the gamut,” Carrington said. “Some are just trying to hang on to graduate. They want to get on with life.”

Some students, particularly those who live in rural parts of the state, have access to a wider variety of classes that are not available in their home school districts.

ORCA has expanded dramatically from its origins. In 2005-06, its first year of operation, there were 650 students. In 2013, there are about 3,400 students.

Good fit for teachers

All teachers at the Oregon Connections Academy are “highly qualified,” according to federal standards, said ORCA executive director Todd Miller.

Teachers are located all over the state.

Courtney Whittington, Gia Fratini’s third-grade teacher, works from her home office in Eugene.

Now in her eighth year with ORCA, Whittington has 46 students scattered around Oregon — a very different experience from having 46 students crammed into a classroom.

Whittington pointed out that she now has more opportunities to work one-on-one with her students — whether it’s by phone, email or video conference. She checks in by phone at least twice a month.

“It’s like having a parent-teacher conference every other week,” Whittington explained.

Carrigan, too, enjoys the connection with her students’ families.

“I feel like I get to work with students and parents more. Parents are a lot more aware of what’s going on day-to-day,” she said.

The same, only different

“The principles are the same. We want to offer the best possible school to our students,” Miller said “It just looks different.”

All students at ORCA must meet the same state graduation requirements as students in brick and mortar public schools.

Virtual learning schools also receive a “school report card” from the Oregon Department of Education. In 2011-12, 80 percent of ORCA students met or exceeded state standards in reading, compared to 68 percent statewide. Scores in science were above average as well, while math and writing scores were on par with other schools around the state.

Because it’s a public school, there is no cost to attend and students get the textbooks and other learning materials they need to complete their assignments. They also get student services such as college and career counseling.

“We try to be more than just a curriculum. We try to mirror all the services students would get in a local brick and mortar setting,” Miller said.

There are clubs and activities so children in the same geographical area can meet. There are also field trips all over the state.

For Lisa Fratini and her children, the biggest advantage to virtual schooling is the flexibility. The children can do their lessons “whenever is the best time for them to learn,” she said. It allows Gia and Kyle time to train for the Hillsboro Heat swim team.

“I never feel like they’re isolated in what they’re learning,” Fratini said. “We’re out all the time.”

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