A $3.4 million state grant has paved the way for an alternate source of education in Fulton County.
The Northwest Ohio Virtual Academy (NOVA) was launched this spring as an option for students who prefer home schooling or haven’t found their niche in a brick and mortar classroom. Created by a consortium of 16 area school districts, the tuition-free virtual academy also gives those students the opportunity to remain in their chosen district and participate in its extra-curricular activities.
The academy provides a Common Core curriculum but also some elective courses not available in its brick and mortar counterparts. It was created through a grant from Ohio’s Straight A Fund, a $250 million initiative begun last summer by Gov. John Kasich to encourage new learning approaches.
The area consortium’s Fulton County members are all school districts except Pettisville Local Schools. Other members include the Four County Career Center, Ayersville, Holgate, Stryker, and Liberty Center school districts. School districts in Paulding and Wood counties were invited to join, but declined.
Because NOVA is a public school-sponsored academy, all equipment and supplies are provided to students free of charge. Students can learn from home, go online from the brick and mortar school building to experience a sense of belonging, or choose blended enrollment - part home study, part traditional study.
And NOVA provides a self-paced learning atmosphere, Gene Rupp, director of Fayette Virtual Academy, which preceded NOVA, said, “which is what I think people most enjoy. There are some benefits to families, too. It gives students and parents a choice in how they view the education.”
All regular extra-curricular activities within the school districts are available to NOVA students. Co-curriculars such as band, choir, and FFA which accompany a course, are considered on a case-by-case basis.
Elective courses are as diverse but based on the student’s needs and schedule. They can also be taken at the brick and mortar schools by traditional students in lieu of a study hall.
Rupp, said each school district operates the virtual academy according to its needs and policies. An average of 50 students per consortium school district will enroll in NOVA for the fall. Seniors who complete their studies with NOVA will attend commencement ceremonies at their district high school and receive a diploma.
Rupp wrote the grant for NOVA’s funding which was awarded to the consortium in December. The academy was operational by January, offering 261 courses to 1,297 students enrolled for spring.
The 60 elective courses available to students are in specialized areas too cost prohibitive to be available at a traditional school. They include medical terminology, veterinary science, criminal investigation, forensic science, philosophy, and sports and entertainment marketing.
“If we can provide other opportunities for our students, I think it’s a great option. The grant allows the consortium to take the risk of this without involving taxpayer dollars,” Swanton Local Schools Superintendent Jeff Schlade said.
Rupp said what NOVA does best is “provide an opportunity to give students success in the career choice they choose. “We’re saying, ‘What can we do to fit your needs, your requirements?’ I don’t think anything will ever replace face-to-face instruction, but as the times change we have to start meeting the needs of the way kids are learning now.”
Fayette Local Schools Superintendent Erik Belcher was instrumental in establishing NOVA. He said the virtual academy gives families choices in education. “And it gives us as a district the tools to meet the needs of the public,” he said.
Larry Brown, Wauseon Exempted Village Schools superintendent, said the district joined the consortium “to work with certain students who have not found the right situation. It is very Common Core based, and follows what our kids need for graduation.”
One of the objectives behind NOVA is to retain students who would otherwise leave the school district to attend a virtual academy, Schlade said. NOVA also may bring back students who have already left the district for other options.
He added: “It’s a way for those looking for alternative ways to home-school their children.”
Rupp said he expects both NOVA’s enrollment and course offerings to grow. The consortium is currently speaking with other area school districts about introducing the model to them.