June 18, 2021

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Durham to launch Ignite Online Academy as full, virtual school

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Durham Public Schools will launch its first, permanent virtual K-12 academy in the fall.

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With all the challenges the pandemic has brought to public education, one thing is making Durham school leaders excited about the future.

Durham Public Schools is making its first, virtual K-12 academy a permanent school in the fall.

Ignite Online Academy will bring a personalized approach to learning, combining virtual coursework with field trips for students interested in taking classes from the comfort of their homes.

While the district has enrolled students in online learning through their home schools since last fall in response to the pandemic, Ignite will work differently in some ways from the remote learning of the past year, administrators told school board members Thursday night.

“This is the most exciting thing to come from COVID, I think, in Durham,” board member Natalie Beyer said. “This will be an amazing learning opportunity for so many students.”

Ignite will begin with summer programming and expects to launch in the fall with about 500 students.

It will have eight elementary school teachers, seven middle school teachers, and three high school teachers, along with an internship coordinator.

The academy will also have counselors for English as a Second Language students, and for students in the Exceptional Children and Academically or Intellectually Gifted programs.

How will it differ from online classes now?

Deputy Superintendent of Academic Services Nakia Hardy and Matt Hickson, the district’s director of online learning, outlined a few ways Ignite would diverge from how online classes currently operate.

Schedules would be more flexible and personalized for students

In-person and blended learning opportunities will be available

Teachers will apply and receive training for Ignite

Students will be able to enroll in “expeditions,” which are shorter than semester-length electives. They will operate with nine-week rotations, including traditional elective activities and experiential opportunities for learning, such as field trips

An expedition that Ignite currently offers is a computer science program led by CS Sidekicks, where Duke University graduates teach DPS students how to code and build websites, Hickson said.

Ignite will follow student standards laid out by the N.C. Department of Instruction’s digital learning plan and the International Society for Technology in Education, Hardy said.

“We have learned a great deal from our teachers, our students and our community about the practice of online learning during the school year and have transitioned,” Hardy said, thanking the board for providing digital devices to students.

DPS spent about $7.8 million of federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funds last year to buy over 20,000 laptops for students.

While extenuating circumstances could allow for students to opt out of Ignite after enrolling, Hardy said families who sign up should be serious about committing to a full year.

Online academies across the state and country

Some statewide charter schools already offer virtual classes, including the Durham-based North Carolina Cyber Academy and North Carolina Virtual Academy.

Wake County also runs an online public school, Wake County Crossroads Flex, which offers blended learning. The district launched WCPSS Virtual Academy last summer, but it’s unclear if it will continue after the pandemic.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools gives remote instruction throughout the district. It does not offer a separate online academy, like Durham will, but some administrators are considering the option, said district spokesperson Jeffrey Nash.

Outside the Triangle, Pitt County and Iredell County run online academies as well.

Enrollment in full-time, publicly funded virtual schools for K-12 has been growing across the country since before the pandemic, according to reports by the National Education Policy Center at University of Colorado Boulder.

In its 2013 study, the research center identified 311 virtual schools with about 200,000 students in the 2011-12 academic year, including charters.

By the 2017-18 academic year, those numbers had grown to 511 virtual schools, with 297,712 students, according to a 2019 study.

Screen time, athletics, and acceleration

While more information will be coming later this spring, Hickson said he hopes to create opportunities for kindergartners to learn outdoors.

“We know that it is not best practice to have children on the computer screen all day,” he said. “Especially our youngest learners.”

Students will also be able to participate in sports and athletics through their base school.

Ignite will give students the chance to be exposed to more advanced coursework than what their grade level usually entails. Because it is a K-12 school, it has the flexibility to scale up and down across course levels to personalize a student’s syllabus, Hickson said.

“Certainly with middle school and going into high school, we have a lot of opportunities for acceleration through online learning,” he said.

CORRECTION: This story was updated to clarify how expeditions differ from traditional electives.

Corrected Mar 28, 2021

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Charlie Innis covers Durham government for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun through the Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellowship. He has been a New York-based freelance writer, covering housing and technology for Kings County Politics, with additional reporting for the Brooklyn Eagle, The Billfold, Brooklyn Reporter and Greenpoint Gazette.