A group of North Texas students did something unusual recently – they met face-to-face. They’re enrolled in the iUniversity Prep school, one of the few in the state where learning is done entirely online.

The KERA radio story

Susie Vandeventer noticed a change in her son Will during his last semester of fifth grade. He started losing interest in school and was having trouble learning.

“A lot of peer pressure and things like that were affecting him and his school work and he didn’t seem to be as enthusiastic about school,” says Vandeventer.

Vandeventer started looking for different ways to help her son, anything to get him more excited about entering middle school. That’s when she found out about an online school in North Texas offered through the state’s Virtual School Network. Students enrolled in these schools never have to set foot inside a building. She signed Will up.

“He has done a complete turnaround as far as how engaged he is, and what he’s learning,” Vandeventer says. “As a family, we are much more in tune with what he’s learning, and we kind of take part in his classwork in that we can talk about it and discuss it as a family, which is really nice to be a part of it.”

The Grapevine-Colleyville school district launched the school – known as iUniversity Prep – in the fall. It’s one of only six full-time online public schools in Texas and has 150 kids enrolled in grades sixth through 11th. The district plans to add grades 5th and 12th next year.

Every day, students log on for what’s called a live lesson. That’s when they can instant message their teachers. But there is also the occasional face-to-face meet-up. Last week, it was at a Starbucks.

“It’s a lot different but it’s a good different,” says 12-year-old Will Vandeventer. “It’s definitely a change for the better.”

Will wore a pair of headphones and worked on his laptop. He says he enjoys his online classes but also likes the ability to talk with his teachers in person.

“You have a lot more one on one time with the teachers if we have a difficult time with something,” Will says. “It’s not like you’re in a giant class with 30 other students.”

Kaye Rogers, the district’s director of virtual education, says online classes can be helpful for students involved in sports training programs that conflict with traditional schedules. Kids with special medical needs or those who’ve been bullied may also benefit.

At the recent meet-up, history teacher Heath Hamrick decided to liven things up at the coffee shop by dressing up in medieval armor.

“People have a comfort level with a guy dressed up in a weird costume at their local coffee shop. With school being done over the internet, that is what raises eyebrows, and I’ve actually had more questions about virtual school than I’ve had about what I’m wearing. So that’s actually been a good thing.”

Hamrick says there has always been a need for different education options, and there’s no one way to teach a class. But making sure students understand how a virtual school works is important, says Andres Bentacur, who teaches Spanish, health/PE and 7th grade science.

“There’s a difference between virtual students and brick and mortar students,” Bentacur says. “Our school is not for the masses. Our students – there’s an innate requirement to be virtual to have self-disciplined, organization, self-motivation.”

Parents also play a critical role. In other words, they can’t just leave their child in front of a computer and expect all the work will get done, says language arts teacher Jessica Lee.

“In a virtual setting, the parent has to take that responsibility to make sure that the kids are logging in every day,” Lee says. “That they’re getting their assignments done and turning them into their teacher.”

Lee says she taught in a school district for 12 years and was starting to feel stagnant when she learned about the online teaching job. She says teaching students online is challenging because the kids aren’t in the same room with her.

“As a teacher you have to think about that and think of creative ways in order to reach those kids,” Lee says. “Call them and web mail them, whatever works for them.”