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Virtual School Gives Students Safe, Flexible Learning Environment

Students learn time management skills and have the freedom to do their schoolwork in a way that fits with the rest of their activities.

(TNS)  — Virtual school is not homeschool, don't get it twisted.

One 16-year-old Burlington sophomore has been enrolled in the Iowa Connections Academy — a tuition-free virtual public school — since he was a seventh-grader.

IACA began three years ago and offers students in grades K-12 the flexibility to learn from anywhere, at any time, with a curriculum meeting state standards.

Through a combination of Iowa-certified teachers, unique electives, technology tools and community experiences, the academy creates online opportunities for families who want an individualized approach to their children's education.

It partnered with the consolidated CAM School District in Anita, a town an hour's drive west from Des Moines, with a population of under 1,000. The district encompasses the surrounding towns of Wiota, Cumberland and Massena.

Cody Kemp prefers this new method.

Before IACA, Kemp, 16, attended James Madison Middle School and Blackhawk Elementary School. He said his grandparents heard about the Iowa Connections Academy through a friend at their church who homeschooled their children.

Cody's grandfather, Dean Kemp, said he heard about the IACA through a public school teacher, who has since moved from the area. Maureen Kemp — Cody's grandmother — said the family was beginning to question the public schools.

"There were numerous incidents at school where the police were called in or teachers and principals were injured by students, and we began to be a little bit uncomfortable about that," she said. "It's very calm here, very quiet. There's not other distractions or unruly children, those were all issues. It became an unfriendly place, and I thought that shouldn't be the environment for a kid to learn."

Cody has six hours of classes each day, similar to traditional schooling. Each lesson contains key vocabulary words and ends with an assessment test.

"Each class takes between a half hour and a hour," Cody said. "I have six or seven classes a semester. It's set to where you can get behind but you can also get ahead. I attend six hours a day, but it doesn't matter which six hours."

Cody volunteers at the Department of Natural Resources office in the morning and does his school work in the afternoon.

"Or on a Saturday," Maureen said. "He can vary his (school) schedule to match up with his life schedule."

When it comes to class schedules, there's no chance of Cody picking a class and finding out the class is full or not offered. He said he has an unlimited number of classes from which to choose, ranging from basic staples, like geometry and English, to more specialized classes courses, like pre-law and computer science.

"We watched an open-heart surgery," Cody said, referring to a video included in the online curriculum for his medical terminology class. "It's gross."

"I have a friend that goes to public school, and he's taking geometry as a senior," Cody said. "I can take that now as a sophomore. There are some prerequisites to pass before going on, but you can pick which social studies you want. I had the choice of world history, U.S history and I picked cultural geography."

Maureen said Cody took a pre-law class and was the only Connections student in Iowa, but there were students from other states.

"As part of his learning process, they have live lessons where they are interacting with teachers and students and also have discussions," Maureen said. "As part of the discussion, you have to have that with other students. I remember when he did pre-law — no other kids in Iowa were taking it, so he was conversing with kids in Maryland and Virginia through email and messaging."

When Cody graduates, he will get a diploma from the CAM School District, after which he plans to study law enforcement at Western Illinois University.

Though he still has a social life, he does miss some student interaction.

"Sports really. If I was going to play basketball or football, it would have to be in Anita with the CAM district. Technically, I'm going to that school," Cody said.

Cody said Connections is harder than traditional schooling.

"You learn a lot more and it's more fun," Cody said. "Any kid would say doing it on a computer is much more fun.  If I have a question, I can call my teachers, email them. And they usually get back to me within the hour, sometimes sooner."

Maureen said one benefit she's seen is how Cody has developed his time management skills.

"He's learned how to deal with that and, in order for him to do some of his other activities, he can sit on a Saturday on a given afternoon and knock down all his geometry assignments for the week," Maureen said. "He still has six hours every day that he takes care of, but that time management, most adults don't get that till they go on their first job. For me, it's very important that he got that."

Cody said one of the worst parts about attending Connections is explaining to his friends where he goes to school.

"They ask, 'What school do you go to?' and I'll say virtual school," Cody said. "And they say, 'Oh, so you are homeschooled?'"

©2016 The Hawk Eye (Burlington, Iowa), distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.