Virtual School students explore the world while they study

By Allison Marlow
Posted 1/2/20

In eighth grade, Anne Louis Bullington and her family left their Baldwin County home for an extended visit to Europe. She was able to continue her studies through a new online school that was based …

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Virtual School students explore the world while they study

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In eighth grade, Anne Louis Bullington and her family left their Baldwin County home for an extended visit to Europe. She was able to continue her studies through a new online school that was based in Decatur.

The next year, her family returned to Alabama, but for the teen who grew up exploring the globe, her high school adventure didn’t hold as much draw.

“It wasn’t the same,” she said. “I really enjoyed the freedom of scheduling and managing my own time.”

The family began exploring options. Could they live in Europe and continue to school in Alabama? They discovered the newly opened Baldwin County Virtual School and the answer quickly became, yes.

Through the Virtual School’s budding program, Bullington was able to complete assignments, work one-on-one with teachers when she had questions and even complete testing requirements with trained proctors – all online from her temporary home in Eastern France.

Now as a senior at the Virtual School she has not only been able to travel extensively, but she has studied theatre and voice in London, New York, and other far flung locations – all without missing a single day of school in Baldwin County.

“We expected all the doors to close when we began our search but no doors closed,” Bullington said.

Last month the Baldwin County Virtual School flung its doors wide open for one of the most anticipated ribbon cuttings in the county. The sleek, modern-design of the school’s Daphne location on U.S. 98 matches what feels like a futuristic scenario in which technology allows students to attend school how, when and where they want.

Here, students come in and work at the sleek rows of tables with nothing more than their county-issued laptop, and only, if they want to. Virtual school students are required to make appearance on test days only – most of which they determine based on their own schedule. Homework is done at their own pace. Some complete their assignments on a typical pace, others work ahead, completing weeks’ worth of work at one time.

One student has already completed all of her assignments for the current school year.

The Baldwin County Virtual School was created in 2013 when the Baldwin County Board of Education applied for a waiver to create the virtual program which allowed students’ attendance to be counted by logging in rather than sitting in a desk. That first year only sophomores and juniors were invited to participate and 19 students from around the county did.

The school continued to grow organically and added freshmen and seniors to the mix the next year and began holding classes at the Coastal Alabama campus in Fairhope. As the school gained traction so did the idea of virtual schooling.

In 2016 a new state law took effect requiring every public school system to adopt a policy to provide a virtual school option for eligible students in grades nine through twelve, a law inspired partially by the success in Baldwin County, said Virtual School Principal Holly Resmondo. Now nearly 5,400 public school students attend a virtual school within Alabama.

“Baldwin County is truly a leader in virtual school for the state,” Resmondo said. “It stems from the fact that we have students with all kinds of needs such as medical concerns and outside activities and we start seeing that we are losing those students to other programs and other schools because they need that flexibility.

“That’s one of the main reasons we started this,” Resmondo said. “The world is growing and changing so dramatically and we want to be able to keep up with that and allow our kids to move forward with their academic careers.”

In 2017, the Baldwin County Virtual School met state benchmarks to become a standalone school as well. The school had more than 250 students enrolled and was now eligible to hire an administrative staff and begin searching for a permanent home. Virtual School Assistant Principal Jacque Helms said the slow climb to that goal was intentional.

“We wanted to grow small so we could still keep individual contact with our students,” she said.

Last year, enrollment number jumped to 346 students from every corner of Baldwin County in grades seventh through twelfth. Coastal Alabama hosts virtual students on its campuses in Fairhope, Bay Minette and Gulf Shores and the schools’ nine teachers rotate between the locations throughout the week.

As the school grows, the individual attention remains. While other virtual schools in Alabama accept students from any county, the Baldwin County Virtual School only accepts students who live within Baldwin County.

“We want to have that personal relationship,” Helms said. “Other virtual schools tend to be open to everybody so you are truly virtual. We are more hybrid or blended because we do a lot of face to face, emailing and texting. Our teachers personally know them and when falling behind they are their coach, their mentor and the person they can go to and say, ‘I’m kind of stressing, what can I do’,” she said.

She added that the low student population gives instructors more one-on-one time with students.

“They can help them create a plan and think through their activities,” she said. “Most schools have one counselor for 300 kids. Here we have a coach for every 30 kids so that’s a total different concept.”

While students return to their assigned schools to compete in athletics or band, the Virtual School hosts a number of clubs, its own prom and its own graduation ceremony each spring.

Every graduate who crosses that stage knows every teacher standing and applauding them.

“When Anne was accepted early to Boston University she came in and told us and it was so exciting. We all started crying,” Resmondo said. “To have that relationship with your kids and have them want to come in and tell you the great things happening in their lives, it’s amazing. It’s wonderful.”

Helms added, “We watch these kids make it into the schools they want or into the careers they want and they tell us it’s because of virtual school. It’s exciting to be a part of watching these kids make their dreams come true.”