Andover eCademy sees huge growth in past year

The room at Meadowlark Elementary in Andover sounds more like an air-traffic control tower than an elementary school classroom.

Four women sit at desks in opposite quadrants of the room, wearing telephone headsets and speaking simultaneously.

“OK, we have three pictures here. If you need to make it full-screen, go ahead and do that,” says Kristin Downing.

“Desiree, would you request control, please?” says Hillary Barscewski, who teaches kindergarten. “I want you to tell me what picture rhymes with cat.”

“She’s saying that out loud. That’s dialogue,” says Kim Hett, who teaches fourth and fifth grades. “What do we need around the dialogue? If you know what it is, I want you to raise your hand.”

“That’s right: Details are the small things that tell about the main idea,” Michelle Johnson says. “Are there a certain number of details that you’re going to see each time?”

It was just another morning in the room at Andover eCademy, which started three years ago and is now one of the fastest-growing schools in the state.

The number of students enrolled at Andover eCademy at least part time has increased by more than 1,000 percent in the past year. And that’s not a typo: Last school year, 520 students took at least one class through the eCademy’s K-12 program; this year, that number is 5,030 – 381 full time and 4,649 who plug in to at least a class or two.

That boom happened even as enrollment at Andover’s traditional brick-and-mortar schools fell slightly for the first time in more than a decade.

“We grew more this year than anticipated, so it certainly created some difficulties on our end,” said Mark Templin, principal at Andover eCademy.

A district task force is investigating the trend and plans to make recommendations to the Andover school board next month about ways to rein in the school’s growth and possibly refocus its mission.

“It’s word of mouth, but it’s also just the reputation of Andover schools,” Templin said. “People like our approach.”

Andover eCademy bills itself as a “blended” online program – something between e-school and a traditional classroom, not quite homeschool and not quite not. It’s independent study and face-to-face instruction, serving everyone from children who travel on the rodeo circuit to those whose health issues keep them close to home.

Some students, including many from Wichita-area Catholic elementary and middle schools, tap into Spanish classes, advanced math classes or others through Andover eCademy because their schools don’t offer those courses or don’t offer them at the right time for their schedules. The school is free for Kansas residents.

“It’s not just a kid interacting with a whole bunch of software,” said Greg Rasmussen, superintendent of Andover schools. “It’s that, but there’s also a face behind that computer.

“It’s that humanistic component of it, the blended learning, that I think people really appreciate.”

‘Gave it a shot’

Last year, Stacy and Ron Engels were shopping for a high school for their son Matthew who is academically gifted and has Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism that makes it hard for him to relate to peers or deal with distractions in a traditional classroom.

Matthew attended elementary and middle school in Wichita, but “none of the high school programs seemed to fit him very well,” Stacy Engels said. “Matthew kept saying that he wanted to go to school at home.”

The couple considered homeschooling but ruled it out because of scheduling concerns and financial costs. Stacy Engels heard a commercial for Andover eCademy and attended an orientation, where she asked whether the school worked with special-needs kids.

The principal told her the school had not worked with an Asperger’s child before, “but he said, ‘If you’re willing to try this, we’re willing to try it,’ ” Engels said.

Because the Engelses live in the Andover district – a younger son, Alex, attends Andover Central Middle School – they decided to enroll Matthew in the eCademy, figuring they could transfer him to a traditional high school if it didn’t work out.

“We gave it a shot, and he just hit the ground running.”

Matthew completed his freshman year with nearly all A’s. As a sophomore this fall, working at his own pace and meeting with a teacher at least once a week, he completed a semester of geometry in about 4 1/2 weeks and sociology in about a month.

One day he got interested in a particular topic in world history and worked on it all day, his mother said, completing about three weeks’ worth of assignments in nine hours.

“That’s been another thing that’s fit him well, since he is gifted,” she said. “As long as he’s working at least at the assigned pace, they’ll let him work ahead as far as he wants.”

Matthew communicates with teachers mostly through e-mail or Google Chat, which he prefers because he has selective mutism. Even so, “I had no idea there would be so much teacher interaction,” Stacy Engels said.

“I thought it would be much more separated, just kind of automated, but the teachers reach out to our son and communicate with him. That was really a surprise. I didn’t know how that could possibly work,” she said.

“I miss that he doesn’t get the social interaction in the classroom. But for him, with his particular special needs, we try to make that happen in other ways, with family members and friends.”

Varied students

The eCademy’s teaching staff works out of a collection of rooms at Meadowlark Elementary, near 13th Street and Andover Road. Four elementary school teachers work in one classroom, often holding virtual help sessions simultaneously.

About a dozen secondary school teachers and a full-time technology troubleshooter share cubicles in another room that the principal refers to affectionately as “the frat house.”

Down the hallway, students wanting additional, face-to-face help meet with teachers or work on laptops in an often crowded computer lab they call “the oasis.”

Students complete most coursework using their own computers or those borrowed from the school for a small fee. Courses are Web-based and textbook-free; younger students receive a box of instructional materials they return at the end of the school year.

The eCademy offers field trips, family socials, clubs and in-house learning days to promote social interaction. High school students have formals and a traditional commencement ceremony.

Students who live in the Andover district can participate in band or sports by attending at least one class at a brick-and-mortar Andover school.

“I’m always amazed by how many different reasons kids end up here,” said Downing, who teaches second-grade language arts and social studies.

“A lot of times people assume that, ‘Oh, these kids were bullied or something, so that’s why they’re here.’ Or maybe their parents don’t want them in a public school setting because of religious reasons or whatever. And we do have some of those.”

But Downing’s students have included a competitive gymnast, a child who has frequent migraines and a girl who lives in a remote town and would have to ride a bus several hours to and from her assigned school. Only about 5 percent of the eCademy’s students live in the Andover district.

More and more, Downing added, “parents come to us saying that they just want to be more involved in their child’s education.”

“They’re not overbearing helicopter parents or anything like that. They just honestly want to spend more time with these little guys.”

‘Hands-on approach’

Janelle Emerson is one of those parents. Her daughters – Emmalee, a fifth-grader, and Hannah, a third-grader – are in their second year at Andover eCademy.

A stay-at-home mom, she had considered homeschooling but opted for e-school instead. Both girls still attend their base school, Prairie Creek Elementary, for music classes. Emmalee plays trombone and attends band class for 30 minutes four days a week; Hannah goes once a week.

“We wanted a more hands-on approach to our kids’ learning. We wanted them to just be able to work at their own pace,” Emerson said. “We looked at the options and just decided that e-school would be a good fit for us.”

Emerson serves as her daughters’ “learning coach,” supervising lessons and sitting alongside the girls during virtual sessions with teachers and classmates. The girls work at their kitchen table, often with 2-year-old sister Abigail nearby.

“We get up in the morning and get ready for school, get dressed for the day. We keep a very set time to start,” Emerson said.

The girls usually can finish a school day’s worth of work in four to six hours, Emerson said. When fifth-grader Emmalee’s lessons get more intense and challenging, Hannah works ahead, sometimes finishing two math lessons a day instead of one.

“It’s very flexible, and I love that,” Emerson said. The family could even take a vacation during the school year and tap into lessons from the road, though they haven’t tried that yet.

“We’ve talked about it,” she said.

Rasmussen, the Andover superintendent, said the advisory committee looking into the e-school’s growth will discuss how to better accommodate current students and staff members – possibly with more space – and better focus its mission.

The priority, he said, is to continue offering a rigorous curriculum with a blended-learning approach.

“We can’t be an adult program and a dropout recovery program,” he said. “We’re a little bit of all things to all people right now, and I think we really need to focus.

“For the most part, we’re really trying to appeal to those kids who want excellence, who want rigor but just need to be somewhere else.”