Recently we had the opportunity to sit down with Carolyn Hanych-Fitch, director of the Brandywine Heights Virtual Academy in Berks County near Reading, Pennsylvania. We wanted to find out from Carolyn why the Brandywine Heights Virtual Academy was founded, who it serves, and how they’re helping students in this school district meet their educational goals. Here’s what she had to say:
FuelEducation: What is the Brandywine Heights Virtual Academy?
Carolyn Hanych-Fitch (CH): The Brandywine Heights Virtual Academy (BHVA) is an extension of the Brandywine Heights Area School District that provides an online education for students who excel in a nontraditional classroom setting. We serve students at all grade levels from Kindergarten through Grade 12 and offer them learning options from a full-time online learning environment to blended schedules where students can take one or more courses online and the rest of their course content in a traditional brick-and-mortar classroom.
FuelEducation: How did the Brandywine Heights Virtual Academy come into existence?
CH: In 2009, our district wanted to provide students with the opportunity to learn using online delivery of content and flexible scheduling. We wanted to cater to every student in our district and not let those who were unable, for whatever reason, to thrive or participate in the traditional school environment fall behind. These are students who might have medical conditions to contend with or social or family issues to overcome. Our main goal was to ensure that we were meeting more students’ needs more effectively. We became part of a consortium of districts that were entering the arena of online and personalized learning. Being part of a group of districts where we share experiences and best practices as well as professional development has really been fundamental to our success.
FuelEducation: What kinds of students does it serve?
CH: There are no "typical" students in the Brandywine Heights Virtual Academy (BHVA). As mentioned previously, the BHVA serves students from Kindergarten through Grade 12. Most of our students in Kindergarten through Grade 5 are full-time online learners who take their classes at home with a parent acting as their learning coach. These students tend to come in to the brick-and-mortar school for art and music class, for support like speech therapy or Title I, and to interact with their peers. Students in middle school tend to move more toward a fully blended learning environment, taking some courses online and the rest in the brick-and-mortar classroom. The most mixed group of learners are our high school students who tend to use online learning to support career goals through technical training or academic goals through AP® courses or credit recovery to ensure an on-time graduation.
FuelEducation: How do you define success and measure the quality of your district’s programs?
CH: The BHVA is part of the Brandywine Heights Area School District and, as such, we’re held accountable to all district and State of Pennsylvania standards. But the bottom line is that success can only be defined by whether or not our students are meeting their educational goals and are we providing them with the tools they need to be successful. We work with every student and their education team—the teacher, the guidance counselor, and the parent—to ensure that their specific needs will be met when they transition to an online or blended learning program.
All BHVA programs are set up on a case-by-case basis to ensure the specific needs of each student are met. We always emphasize that each student is still part of the district—free to participate in all activities based on their ability—and backed by their education team. For older students, those in Grades 6 and above, we include a perception evaluation to solicit feedback from them about their learning strengths and what they think the program will be like. That enables us to gauge a student’s readiness for this type of learning environment and whether or not it will meet their educational goals. These older students are also required to participate in an in-person orientation session to ensure that they know how to use the online system. After all, it’s the content that should be challenging, not the technology.
We also make sure we showcase our BHVA students’ work in a Spring Open House. Each student is asked to submit examples of their work for the Open House and then we invite their families, along with members of the community, to view their work. Displaying a student’s work is an important rite of passage, but it also ensures transparency to the parents and to other stakeholders in our community. Our online providers also attend to display online curriculum and to demonstrate the online platform.
FuelEducation: Can you share a success story with us?
CH: We’ve had so many wonderful stories since the BHVA was created in 2009. We are proud of all of our students; however several students’ stories stand out. Many of our greatest successes come from students who were at risk of dropping out of school for one reason or another. I will never forget one of our students who was able to complete his high school diploma while working a 40-hour-a-week job to support his family. Or, a student who had lupus and, despite the impact of her illness on her physical strength and the impact of doctor and hospital visits on her time, she was able to graduate with her class because her education was within her control through the BHVA program. In addition, we had a student who was training for the Paralympics, so he participated in the virtual academy program while traveling. He will be competing in Sochi in this month!