Editor's Note: This is the second in a two-part regional package about technology in education.
There aren't many schools that have grown almost 1,000 percent in four years. But Andover's eCademy has, and the unique program still has room to grow.
The alternative education program that is comprised of both brick and mortar classes and virtual education provides better opportunities to children including home school students, students involved in highly-competitive sports programs like rodeo and gymnastics, those suffering from chronic illnesses, advanced students, victims of bullying and even students in rural districts who have less access to specialized classes.
In 2009, three educators crowded in one room and began providing an alternative form of education for about 125 students.
As orientation classes were held for the students and their learning coaches last week, more than 4,000 students – an equivalent of about 1,000 full time students – began work with a staff of 40. Each of those students is required to have a learning coach to work with them outside of the school. Typically, that learning coach is a parent.
"The girls have a dedicated teacher," said Andover resident Keri Meier who has two children in the eCademy and three in traditional schools in U.S.D. 385. "They respond to questions promptly. I was frightened to take on the role of learning coach at first but the teachers help make the program work."
Meier's daughters are involved in competitive gymnastics that require about 20 hours of training and frequent travel that has even included trips to Florida for national compeititions.
The eCademy may have almost 4,000 students taking classes but it still has no home of its own. It exists within Meadowlark Elementary School.
The district boundaries for the eCademy include the entire state of Kansas. Obviously, some students from Kansas City and far western Kansas can't avail themselves of the regular class time inside Meadowlark on Monday, Wednesday and Friday each week. On Tuesday and Thursday, the students can take advantage of virtual classes online. Even though they can be anywhere in the world, the students are educated in a virtual classroom where they can all see and hear each other and the teachers.
Principal Mark Templin said the program is not designed for remedial students. Because of the flexibility of the program, students must possess a high level of discipline.
"Most students find this program even more rigorous than traditional classrooms because advanced students may work at their own pace," Templin said.
Because of the nature of the student pool, Templin's job as principal is very different from typical administrators.
"The issues we face aren't that different," he said. "But how we deal with them is very different."
He said the number one problem at the eCademy is students not performing the proper number of hours of instruction per week or falling behind in their work.
If the students continue to lag, they are removed from the program and placed back into traditional classrooms.
Meier is a good example of the kind of parent that thrives within the program.
She is a mother of seven and possesses the focus and determination to ensure that her children are meeting the program standards.
"This program offers structure, which I love, and strict deadlines," Meier said.
Shannon Fisher ran the entire program in its first year and she still serves as the program's director. She said one of the major benefits of the program has always been the ability of the teachers to work with students on an individual basis.
"This program makes it easier for teachers to differentiate instruction for individual students," Fisher said.
Templin said the program has obvious advantages.
"It is nice not to be restricted by time and space," he said. "We have the flexibility to be able to work way outside the box."
Fisher said the program requires a special type of teacher. She said they work flexible hours because their students – while they have to have a required number of hours of instruction each day – don't have to have that instruction at any set time. The school also hires teachers on a 12-month contract because the non-traditional style of instruction and student body lends itself to summer courses as well as the normal semester courseloads.
Fisher and Templin said one of the main goals this year is to develop a vision for where the program can and should go in the future. One of those goals is to someday have a building of their own.
The students of eCademy have their own graduation ceremony, their own activities and even their own prom.
But most of the students are able to participate in extra curricular activities like sports, band and choir in their home district as long as they are enrolled in at least one class in the traditional school setting.
It may not be the perfect educational setting but the Andover eCademy helps solve education issues for parents and students that no traditional school could.