IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — In his virtual classroom, Iowa City math teacher Bennett Brown says he has more time to challenge students who are excelling in the class and work individually with those struggling with the basic content.
Brown teaches for ICCSD Online, a new and permanent virtual learning school in the Iowa City Community School District. Students who are actively engaged in his class are having “tremendous” success, he said, which they might not have accomplished in an in-person learning environment.
The Cedar Rapids Gazette reports that students who have social anxiety, feel self-conscious about their clothing or appearance or who don’t like navigating busy hallways may feel they can focus better on their academics in an online learning environment. And Brown isn’t wasting any class time disciplining students.
About 850 K-12 students are enrolled in the online school. Some families enrolled their children because of continued uncertainty during the COVID-19 pandemic. Others found that virtual learning worked for their family after trying it during the 2020-21 school year because of the pandemic.
“In-person education fails a tremendous number of kids” by not being rigorous or relevant enough, Brown said. But, “I still have students online who belong in person, and there are students in-person who would probably do better online.”
Jack Struthers, 12, has been enrolled in some form of virtual learning since March 2020. His mother, Jenny Struthers, said he’s doing really well academically.
“I’ve been highly impressed with the online program,” she said. “I wasn’t worried about him falling behind.”
Struthers said Jack’s teachers are “excellent” and clear about their expectations of students. He attends classes virtually with live instruction. If he needs some extra help, he can pop in to a virtual classroom later in the day to get one-on-one learning.
Now that he’s able to get the pediatric vaccination against COVID-19, Jack is returning to in-person learning for the socialization, Struthers said. “It’s time,” she said, adding ICCSD Online is a good option for families who still feel unsafe in an in-person environment or who have found virtual learning is just better for them.
Renee Zukin, who teaches seventh- to ninth-grade English Language Arts, initially taught virtually during the 2020-21 school year because it was a “safe choice” for her and her family, she said.
Zukin soon realized virtual learning is an amazing opportunity for some students and sees herself teaching online for the foreseeable future. Her own daughter, a 10th-grader, is learning online this year.
Eighth grade students in Zukin’s class are learning about short stories, talking about literary elements, theme and plot structure before trying their hand at writing their own short story.
In class, students have the choice to read on their own, read in a group setting or even listen to a recording of the reading, depending on how they learn best.
Some students are more engaged in class — using virtual chat functions to send questions or reactions to what Zukin is teaching without having to raise their hand and speak out loud in front of their peers, a nerve-wracking experience for some.
Occasionally, the students will get a visit from Zukin’s dogs — Charlie and Doug — when they pop up in her camera view.
Luke Dillon is helping teachers — and families — meet the needs of the students as the first principal of ICCSD Online.
ICCSD Online students still may attend some classes of their choosing, such as music, on-site and also attend school events like dances, Dillon said. But ICCSD Online is working to create its own culture with virtual clubs, like chess, and even virtual lunch periods that students can join.
The school also is now offering in-person support to students and families twice a week.
District officials will be monitoring students’ success in online learning through test scores, determining what’s working and where improvements need to be made, Dillon said. Test score data is not yet available for the new program.
ICCSD Online isn’t for everyone, Dillon said. Online students should have a dedicated work space at home — somewhere quiet and free from distractions. Students need to have “intrinsic motivation” and take advantage of available academic supports, Dillon said. Parents also need to be on board and supportive of online learning.
“They are an extension of the classroom teacher,” Dillon said.