Recently we had the opportunity to sit down with Daniel Mahlandt, director of the Ephrata Virtual Academy in Ephrata Pennsylvania. We wanted to find out from Daniel why his school district founded the Ephrata Virtual Academy, who it serves, and how they’re helping students meet their educational goals. Here’s what he had to say:
Learning Outside the Lines (LotL): What is the Ephrata Virtual Academy?
Dan Mahlandt (DM): The Ephrata Virtual Academy offers students in the Ephrata School District an incredible opportunity to pursue their education in a way that best meets their needs. It offers students a variety of education options from a completely online learning program for Kindergarten through Grade 12, as well as the opportunity for students to split their time between onsite classes and labs and online learning. We also serve "non-traditional" students—such as those with mental and physical health issues—to ensure that their ability to receive a first-rate education isn’t compromised by their challenges.
LoTL: How did the Ephrata Virtual Academy come into being?
DM: The Ephrata Virtual Academy came into being as a result of the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter Schools. There are 16 cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania that enable students to pursue their education in a fully online environment; it’s open to any student and the costs are covered by the student’s school district. While we’re fully supportive of different learning opportunities, we thought there could be a better, more cost-effective way to address our students’ needs. So, as a district, we decided to create a program by partnering with Fuel Education (FuelEd) to provide online learners with the same resources they would receive at a traditional school. So far, the results have spoken for themselves. In addition to improvement in student outcomes, we’ve seen significant cost savings.
LotL: What kinds of students does the Ephrata Virtual Academy serve?
DM: We serve a diverse group of students across each grade level from Kindergarten to twelfth grade. We see everything from the high level gymnast who needs to practice during school hours for top quality training, to students who have physical or mental health issues and can’t be in a classroom setting. Along with those groups, we we also address the needs of students who want to be homeschooled, but wanted a structured curriculum, and we make a full educational experience available to students who need flexibility—such as our elite student athletes.
LotL: How do you define success and measure the quality of performance by students in the virtual academy?
DM: As well as meeting state mandated success metrics, we have to meet parent and student satisfaction benchmarks in a different way from a traditional classroom, because the students that are in the virtual academy have, oftentimes, been failed by the system. By delivering courses developed from quality curriculum that meets state requirements and has built-in benchmark testing, our students start off on the right foot. With online curriculum delivery, instructors are able to get much more insight about how a student is performing and in what ways they learn best, and can make adjustments to the student’s personalized learning plan immediately, rather than needing to wait for the results of mid-terms or finals. We also use state tests as key indicators of success and, of course, graduation rates; if we’re not getting our kids to graduation we’re not doing our job.
LoTL: Can you share a success story with us?
DM: We’ve had so many great success stories over the years; it’s difficult to pick just one. However, there’s always one student whose struggle is particularly hard and whose success is all the sweeter for that struggle.
In my case, this was a student who was on the autism spectrum and struggling at school—not for academic reasons, but emotionally and socially. So, the student left his traditional school and went to a cyber charter school, and his parents hoped that by removing the social hurdles the student’s academic performance would improve—as would his overall happiness. However, the social isolation was actually harder on the student, and his overall happiness as well as academic performance declined further.
The parents came back to the district to talk about their options, explain their child’s needs and to see what the district could offer. Based on the parents’ understanding of their child’s needs it was determined that a blended learning environment would best support his educational needs and goals. The student did most of his lessons online but attended onsite for math class and short periods of social interaction. Over the course of the first year, we gradually increased the level of social interaction through social events at the school.
The student is now registered full-time in the physical school, but is still taking some online classes. He’s on schedule for an on-time graduation and with great academic results!