At a recent visit to the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, Erika Montgomery leaned down and smiled at a young student.
“I should know you, but I’ve never seen your face before,” the teacher said warmly to the girl, a student in Montgomery’s kindergarten class.
It seems to be an unusual interaction between a teacher and her student, especially by February. But first-time face-to-face meetings abound among this group of 75 parents and students, all of whom are enrolled in the online public school Washington Connections Academy.
The K-8 program launched in Washington this year, offering virtual education to about 400 students across the state. The school will add high school classes every year for the next four years until it offers a full K-12 program. Connections Academies have been online across the country for about 15 years, however.
The school combines live classroom instruction using web cameras, as well as self-guided lessons. The school also provides clubs and extracurricular activities for students.
Mike Lunde, principal of Washington Connections Academy, said the program serves families who need more flexible options. There is no “typical” Connections Academy student, he said. All have slightly different stories for why they pursued online education.
“It really truly is a school building in the virtual world,” Lunde said.
In one family’s case, Lunde said, the daughter decided to attend Washington Connections Academy so she could spend time with her father, a long-haul truck driver, on his trips across this country.
“Here’s a kid that would miss her dad for a week at a time but instead gets to be with her dad, see the country and get her education,” Lunde said.
The school also provides field trips across the state, including Friday’s visit to Fort Vancouver. Montgomery, the Walla Walla-based teacher, teaches kindergarten and first-grade classes online.
The program is a good fit for parents who need more flexibility in their children’s learning, Montgomery said. Some students have illnesses that prevent them from going to school full time, while others struggle to succeed around other students. Other parents simply like to spend more time with their children, Montgomery said.
“They really love being able to be involved in their student’s learning and see the day-to-day growth that their kids are making,” Montgomery said.
For Zach and Abby Lezniewicz, the program has offered them time to spend with their sons, 7-year-old Judah and 10-year-old Malachi.
Abby Lezniewicz said the family pulled their children out of private school when the cost became too much and when she started seeing Judah struggle with interacting with other students.
“It’s good,” first-grader Judah said in between checking out beaver pelts and beads at the mock trading post at Fort Vancouver.
Judah’s favorite subject is math, he said, because “you can learn about new things.”
Malachi, meanwhile, likes the “cool experiments” he’s been able to make in his fifth-grade science classes. Washington Connections Academy mails lab kits to families so they can conduct science experiments at home.
The Lezniewiczes run a graphic design and clothing company, Tragic Hope Apparel, from their home, meaning they’ve had a chance to learn about their sons’ learning styles and be more involved in their learning.
“They’re very hands-on type kids, so they were having a hard time sitting and doing papers and papers and papers,” Abby Lezniewicz said.