Payson’S Virtual Academy Will Start In August

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No motivating posters tacked to the wall, no need for hall passes and no more lugging a heavy book bag.

Payson’s Virtual Academy will not look or function like any other classroom in the Payson Unified School District when it launches in mid-August.

Similar to a charter school, the academy allows students to learn at their own pace, but in this case, anywhere and whenever they want.

Using the OdysseyWare computer program, students will log into their classes and learn online from real teachers at distant locations.

Courses range from foreign languages, advanced placement to technology.

Initially for freshmen and sophomores, the program will expand to additional grades in subsequent years. Just like a bricks-and-mortar high school, there is no additional cost to attend.

The announcement of the school was met with mixed reviews from school board members with Rory Huff and Kim Pound hesitant to launch an online-only school.

Pound worried such a school fails to offer the social skills students learn in a traditional learning environment.

While some students may opt to take only online classes, teacher Gail Hodge believes the majority of students still prefer a traditional classroom.

“But now we have a place for students who don’t want that,” she said.

Board member Matt VanCamp said he is taking online classes to further his education and sees the benefit of students having the same opportunity.

“This is absolutely what the future is about,” he said.

Students can sign up to attend the academy full time or take just a few credits.

Academy teacher Gail Hodge said the computer-based program is great for a variety of reasons.

Students can enroll any time during the school year, so if they want to get ahead in math, they can pick up an algebra class and finish it within the school year. If they fail a class, they can enroll in the academy and make it up before school starts.

Students looking to graduate early can couple academy classes with traditional schooling.

And for those students that travel or can’t attend school during regular hours, the academy allows them to learn from any location.

Gold Lab

In 2008, PUSD launched the Gold Lab at Payson High School. The program combines teacher guidance with online courses to help students short of credits catch up and possibly graduate on time.

Housed in a computer lab at PHS, the Gold Lab has been widely successful.

But the expensive program doesn’t capture students off campus.

With OdysseyWare, students can learn from home using their own computer. However, the Gold Lab will still stay open during the school day and from 4 to 6 p.m. for tutoring and proctored tests.

The new academy could potentially bring new students into the district, along with added state funding.

Last year, the district lost 100 students, which resulted in a decline of both state and federal support.

Superintendent Casey O’Brien also hopes the academy will capture at least some of the 200 home-schooled students in Gila County.

OdysseyWare currently offers more than 90 courses built on common core standards that are in alignment with state standards.

All classes are developed and administered by certified teachers.

Hodge will serve as an on-site teacher, offering assistance with coursework. Barbara Fitzgerald will serve as the school’s director/principal.

As the school grows, the board may hire three adjunct teachers to help with math, science and social studies.

Other online programs the district tried lacked rigor, O’Brien said, but OdysseyWare delivers quality content in an engaging, substantiated way.

According to its Web site, the Chandler-based OdysseyWare has provided online curriculum to school districts for the last 30 years.

PUSD has three years to demonstrate the effectiveness of the academy.

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