Van Buren School District’s River Valley Virtual Academy opened in August, giving local students expanded options for learning. The new charter school has helped students across grade levels, allowing them the opportunity to work at their own pace, while benefiting from district programs and services.

RVVA Coordinator Jennifer Feeny said she is thrilled with how the first semester has gone for her and her students. She said she believes that virtual learning is a wonderful option for individuals who need additional flexibility or who have struggled to find success in the typical classroom setting.

“Virtual learning for students is a rapidly growing sector in education,” Feeny said. “RVVA provides flexible and portable education options for students in the River Valley, but is unique in the fact that students have the option to visit our campus for additional support, as well as participate in extra-curricular activities through the school district.”

Fourteen year-old Kayli Holloway appreciates the flexibility that RVVA offers her in her studies.

“I get sick a lot and before I would have to miss a lot of school,” Holloway said. “Now I don’t get behind on work. I can even do my assignments in bed.”

Holloway also enjoys being able to work ahead and take days off to pursue her hobbies.

“I like to work ahead during the week and spend my Fridays baking,” she said.

Having previously participated in other virtual academies, freshman Elaum Purifoy feels that he has finally found a home in RVVA.

“I like the freedom that comes with online learning,” he said. “You can speak your mind and know that you are being evaluated on your answer, instead of being judged by what you wear or what you look like. I don’t have to worry about being bullied either.”

The positive experience has inspired Elaum to want to pursue education and work as a virtual learning teacher.

Eight year-old Sheridyn Buchanan likes being able to work ahead and has been known to get a jumpstart on her assignments. Having come from a homeschool background, she is accustomed to working at her own pace.

“One day she sat down and spent several hours working on her art,” Feeny said. “She was able to complete the entire nine weeks’ worth of projects.”

Self-paced learning also provides great flexibility for families wanting to weave in unique experiences throughout the school year.

“I had one student who went to Houston to help following Hurricane Harvey,” Feeny said. “Another student worked ahead in order to take time off to attend a family gathering. This format definitely provides families more opportunities to explore and freedom to do other things.”

Individualized learning

Another major draw for participating families is the individualized learning RVVA offers students. Housed onsite at VBSD’s Freshman Academy campus, RVVA boasts its own mini-campus, which includes classrooms, conference areas, a reception area and a secure check-in for students and visitors. Students have the opportunity to come in as often as they like to work in the academy classroom and get help from RVVA teachers.

Educator Dana Goodman works closely with her students each week to help ensure their success.

“Most do drop-in, but some have scheduled time and may come in once or twice weekly,” Goodman said. “I have one student who comes in twice a week to work for 30 minutes specifically on math skills. It’s whatever the student needs.”

Parents also play a very active role in their children’s education at RVVA.

“Parents are more of a partner. It’s like parents are learning along with us and we are also bonding with them,” Elaum Purifoy said.

Feeny agreed.

“The parent is a partner in this,” she said. “They serve as the learning coach at home. Parents are very involved for the younger students and as students get into the higher grades, they become more independent.”

In addition to required conferences each semester, parents can also request to meet with RVVA teachers. RVVA leaders work closely with parents to help ensure that students stay on track and that they are completing their work in an appropriate amount of time.

Feeny said she has been pleased by the high level of parent interaction this semester.

“There are some parents that I communicate with weekly, and even daily sometimes,” she said.

A former classroom teacher and VBSD assistant principal, Feeny has experienced a higher level of parent engagement at RVVA than at brick and mortar schools.

“I was surprised by that, but am pleased with the level of involvement in this setting,” she said.

Peer interaction

Although students are able to work independently from the convenience of their own home, students do have the ability to participate in VBSD extra-curricular activities. RVVA participants are counted as students in the Van Buren School District and are therefore eligible to participate in sports, band, choir, clubs, and other programs.

Holloway takes advantage of this, often splitting part of her day between time in the RVVA classroom and in the band room.

“I sometimes come to campus and attend band, then spend time at RVVA, before going back for my flute sectional,” she said. “It is nice to be able to stay on campus and do my classwork between band and my sectional.”

The unique setting of RVVA also allows for other engagement opportunities among participants. Academy students recently attended a field trip to the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith, where they took a campus tour and were given the chance to ask questions about potential degree and career plans.

Other trips have included visits to the River Valley Nature Center and the Drennen-Scott House. Students have also spent time volunteering with the District’s IMPACT program, which provides food boxes to students in need over extended holiday breaks.

Spring enrollment

Enrollment for RVVA is currently open for the spring semester, which will begin in January. Word of the program has spread, with Feeny expecting to welcome many new students in the coming weeks.

“We already have several enrolling for the spring and anticipate more to sign-up,” Feeny said.

Participating families will take part in a two-week orientation, designed to give them a better understanding of the requirements and commitment from both students and parents for RVVA.

“The orientation gives families a trial-run,” Feeny noted. “Virtual learning is not for everyone, so this helps them to make an informed decision.”

To learn more about RVVA, visit RiverValleyVirtualAcademy.com or call (888) 221-3624.