August often signals the end of summer, as it is a time when students head back to school to further their education in math, science and a variety of other subjects. For some, that will entail catching the bus, carpooling or riding their bikes to get to their learning centers. Others will have a much shorter distance to travel, though, as enrollment in online schools allows students to get an individualized education in their own homes.
Similarly, instructors in online schools are afforded the same chance to work in a different environment, something that Kansas Connections Academy Special Education Director Sharon Jaso admitted attracted her to the opportunity five years ago.
"It's innovative and it's new and I've always loved a challenge," Jaso said. "It was really a way to get my feet wet in an administrative level because it was a small school. I not only got to be the special education director and start that, but when we first started I also had the role of assistant principal."
Kansas Connections Academy opened its virtual doors for the 2009-2010 school year. Jaso joined the staff shortly after in 2013, getting the chance to initiate the special education program — serving as both director and teacher in the first few years. In that time with students, she noted what struck her most was how alike the online school setting was to what she had been accustomed to previously (Jaso worked 18 years in the Newton school district).
Operated in partnership with Elkhart USD 218 and accredited by the North Central Association Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement, the Kansas Connections Academy's school year is nearly identical to that of other school districts. Curriculum is similar and there are still opportunities to host larger class sizes, even amidst the one-on-one instruction, but the different tools (i.e. software, video conferencing, etc.) utilized do lead to a bit of an adjustment period — especially at the start of the school year.
"When you come to us, it's not like you just walked into a different building. You've come to an online setting where you have to learn our system, how to use your planner, how to get into your classes, how to structure your day and we help them with all of that, but I think there's a lot of front-loading and teaching that we do that's unique," Jaso said. "There's more managing and teaching skills so that they're able to do more for themselves and structure things for themselves."
Enrollment is also a little different at Kansas Connections Academy. Open to students in kindergarten through 12th grade (with 750 enrolled for 2017-2018), Jaso noted class sizes tend to grow a little more than traditional schools because the academy is taking students from all over the state. Whereas a class in the Newton school district may add a few kids in a given year, Jaso said that this year alone she has 30 new students in the SPED program —all managed from her home office in Newton.
While Jaso noted it is not for every student, she said online school can be "amazing" for some. Though the preconceived notion may be that only the most troubled students wind up in online schools, Jaso stated that Kansas Connections Academy is open and beneficial to all types — from those in the competitive athletic circuit to working actors to students whose families are constantly on the move.
Structure of a given day in classes will vary for each student based on their individualized education plans (IEPs), but that is another benefit Jaso pointed to with online schools. Kansas Connections Academy offers more opportunity for evaluation and understanding students' needs because of its format.
"I think I'm more connected, we as administrators are able to be more connected to our students maybe than in other settings," Jaso said. "That's one of the things that I feel is different being in this setting. I know my families. I know my students."
Being one click away (with teachers available for support from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. usually) affords that connection, while Jaso admits that teachers can work with students to make themselves available by phone if needed to double down on that.
Though Jaso no longer teaches students every day, she admits she is happy to lend her support when needed. Experience working with the Special Olympics during high school pushed her to pursue a career in special education and she has always looked for the next challenge along the way. That is how she viewed Kansas Connections Academy, while she said she maintains a similar approach to supporting students no matter the role.
"Absolutely every student learns. It's up to us to find how and deliver that to them," Jaso said. "I just want to help them be successful and help them prepare for the real world, whatever that's going to look like for them. I want to make sure they have the skills to do what they want to do."
First day of class at Kansas Connections Academy was Aug. 10, but enrollment is still open. Those wanting to know more about the online school can visit www.connectionsacademy.com/kansas-online-school.