In June 2020, after 13 years as an elementary principal, I became the principal of Kelso Virtual Academy (KVA), an online public school that’s a part of the Kelso School District located in southwest Washington state. Since it was founded in 2004, KVA had an enrollment of 25–30 students in grades 8–12. My mission was to expand to a K–12 model in order to meet the changing needs of our community by the start of the new year. Never in my wildest dreams could I have predicted that three months later, KVA would grow to over 1,000 students and have 60 staff! Not only did we do it, but we did it with excellence and purpose. If you’re embracing the world of virtual school, consider these strategic steps to help guide you when starting or expanding your district’s virtual prowess. 

Selecting an Effective Online Curriculum

The first step in growing and developing a virtual program is choosing an online curriculum. Most states have a list of approved online curriculum providers for districts to use—that is a great place to start. Next, begin looking through these providers’ websites. Is it difficult to get to or find information? If their website is complicated, scratch them off your list; don’t even waste your time. Look for a demonstration of the program within the website. Reflect upon the flow, maneuverability, and content engagement. Is it all reading or interactive? Are the videos current? Look for evidence of alignment with state standards. 

Here are a few more questions to consider: 

  1. What operating system is required? Some programs are simply not PC- or Google-friendly. 
  2. What are the requirements for videos built into the curriculum? 
  3. Is there a certain speed, processor, or platform that must be used and will any filters on your district devices prevent access to these links? 
  4. What are supplemental material requirements and are they reasonable? Focus your attention on requirements to complete labs, tasks, and lessons at home, especially in the sciences. 
  5. What courses are available to students? Are there workbooks required for purchase? How many and how often throughout the year? These can be costly, and printing must be a part of the budget planning. 

You should easily be able to narrow down your choices at this point and begin to seek reviews from current users of the curriculum. Most vendors are happy to connect you to these districts to allow you to collect feedback and gain insight. Be sure to have a planned list of questions to ask those you interview. Communicating and seeking input from those closest to the program implementation—teachers, instructional support staff, students, and families—are most valuable. 

As you narrow your choices, schedule meetings with the online curriculum providers. It is critical to ask about:

  • Supplemental program options—consider modifications for special education, English-language learners, and other student groups.
  • Required readings—are they embedded or do they need to be purchased separately? This needs to be clarified, as this may impact cost.
  • Program alignment—is the program aligned and appropriate for the terms your district has adopted—trimester vs. semester? Can you modify the grading window? Is an assignment calendar available to be adjusted for nonschool days? 
  • Rates—what is the cost per student vs. a district license fee;
    cost per class vs. per student? (Do NOT be afraid to negotiate the price!) 
  • Compatibility—is the curriculum compatible with your district’s student information system? Can it sync with gradebooks, transcripts, or student/staff information database systems? 
  • Grading system—how are the assignments graded? What’s the percentage of teacher vs. computer-based grading? Can you adjust the weighted grading system? 
  • Training—is training for staff included in the price? How often and what are the timeline requirements for scheduling?

Answers to these questions will make it easier for you to identify the best curriculum program for your stakeholders. Many districts have specific adoption guidelines to follow; therefore, familiarize yourself with protocols as you proceed.

Building a Successful Program

Once you have chosen a curriculum, there are other tasks you must work through. These include:

  • Vetting the curriculum. Most online courses include a complete curriculum package with supplemental material that must be pared down. It is similar to a typical curriculum adoption in which the classroom teacher receives their new material. We know it is not realistic for the teacher to utilize every resource material or cover every possible assignment provided within the curriculum. Departments must sort through the material and determine what will be taught, assessed, and assigned. This is the same process you’ll follow with most online courses.
  • Development of course scope and sequence. Using departments to ensure online courses match the in-person local school setting is critical. This ensures quality and rigor of the student’s education and allows for smooth transfers from online to in-person learning within your school district.
  • Staff training. Staff must be properly trained, including enrolling students into courses, progress monitoring, and creating calendars for assignment due dates along with required forms for district/state program compliance.
  • Monitor course completion rates. Curriculum is the first step to a well-developed virtual academy and must be thoroughly implemented. As the year continues, monitor course completion rates to identify patterns or courses of concern.

As you begin to develop your virtual academy, you will also need to partner with your human resources department. Consider these key questions for program success:

  • How will you staff the program? 
  • How will you set staff endorsement requirements? Specifically, what can the teacher teach based on their credentials? Some teachers are only endorsed to teach specific grade levels or a specific content area within a specific grade band. 
  • What’s the staff workday schedule? This is important to address, as students can complete their course work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Make sure to include discussions regarding prep times, breaks, and plans for days in which staff are absent. 
  • What will be the student-to-teacher ratio? 
  • How will hybrid students impact your staffing needs? 

Sharing Your Plan

Communicating with families regarding a virtual academy option can begin once you have a clear program vision. Such a vision ensures you are prepared to have competent conversations with potential students and families. To determine interest, we sent a Google survey to families within our school district. Anyone who identified an interest in our academy received a phone call or email to answer questions specific to the new school year and the program. Within the first week we received over 1,200 responses, which informed us that our choice for communication was reliable. Our Facebook live posts reached over 16,000 views and allowed us to answer questions and provide key talking points to our community and potential students. The “live” agenda was based on consistent questions families asked during phone calls and emails. Other communication options to consider with your families could be Twitter, email, websites, and district communication applications. 

Staff communication and preparedness are vital to the success of any school. We divided online program training into multiple parts to slow down the flow and anxiety associated with the rapid expansion of KVA. Doing so allowed staff to reflect upon their learning and develop questions to be addressed within the next training. I sent out daily updates with questions and answers based on consistent patterns of questions I received that day. Daily and weekly online principal office hours were established for staff to “pop in” and ask questions. We provided examples of required paperwork and grading scales via email and a staff Google Classroom. Instructional support staff provided in-person consultations with teachers to review protocols, answer questions, and support various online paperwork requirements. 

With curriculum and staff ready, it is then time to engage your students and their families. Provide individualized conference opportunities for each to guarantee ALL students are ready to start learning the first day of school. Include the following as part of the conference agenda:

With curriculum and staff ready, it is then time to engage your students and their families. Provide individualized conference opportunities for each to guarantee ALL students are ready to start learning the first day of school. Include the following as part of the conference agenda:

  • Review internet safety and acceptable use policies.
  • Sign off on contracts, updates of district enrollment, or other required documents.
  • Confirm student schedules, online work expectations, and IT supports available.
  • Demonstrate student log in of the curriculum, set up future meetings, discuss school calendar and grading terms.

Building and growing Kelso Virtual Academy into a K–12 school with over 1,000 students in one summer was an unforgettable experience. I was surrounded by a resilient and tireless staff that embraced the mantra “failure is not an option,” which created the perfect environment to do the impossible. When your focus is on the students and families you serve, nothing will stop you from success. 

Cindy Sholtys-Cromwell is the principal of Kelso Virtual Academy in Kelso, WA, and a 2021 NASSP Digital Principal of the Year.