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Virtual Academy Supports Youth in Foster Care Overcome Educational Gaps

An unintended but damaging repercussion of life as a child in foster care are gaps in education that are very hard to fill without extraordinary efforts.


Even “foster care stars” like Maria Kelley – now a freshman at UCONN who is rocking a better than 3.0 GPA – can tell you about how being moved from place to place in foster care as often happens has profound implications for a youth’s education.


“Moving around from school to school, how do you expect a kid to graduate high school?” Maria said. “When you aren’t even in the same high school from year to year, it becomes really difficult to advance like students typically are expected to do.”


Maria credits committed advocacy on the part of Department of Children and Families social worker Gina Cluff and school officials who fought to let Maria stay in the school despite being moved from a group home to a foster home.


The Department’s superintendent of schools, Matt Folan, said rectifying the negative academic effects of such instability is the reason the Department established the Virtual Academy in 2016.USD 2 Logo


“With all the transitions, we use the Virtual Academy to fill the resulting gaps,” he said. “We are literally meeting kids where they are at – geographically and academically.”


The Virtual Academy, as the name implies, provides an online mechanism for youth to catch up on credits they did not attain on schedule with other students who do not face the disruptions that come from being in foster care. The online platform, called Edgenuity, provides students an account and access to all of their coursework. The student then receives online course instruction, takes exams, and earns course credit when they pass exams.


In addition, the students receive a lot of very human attention coming from Department teachers serving youth in each region of the state.


Michael MacDonald, a state school teacher serving all of the Department’s Region 1 area -- basically Fairfield County, including the Bridgeport and Norwalk areas -- is one of those working with students on the ground and right in their schools.


“I go into the schools every single day,” he said. “I try to have as much one-to-one contact with students as possible, as well as with guidance counselors, teachers and school administrators. It is all based on the individual student’s needs.”


Any student with present or past involvement with the Department can get enrolled in the Virtual Academy. Mr. MacDonald says he works with the youth’s school to identify courses where the student is either credit deficient or academically not as strong as she or he should be. “It is remediation coursework to close educational gaps,” he said.


The online technology allows students to “log on at any time or any place – nights or weekends. It’s like a YouTube video that teaches a concept. The student then takes a quiz and can move on to the next module,” Mr. MacDonald said. While the technology makes the process convenient for students, the state teachers provide personal attention when challenges arise; if a student is struggling to advance, as evidenced by the quiz scores or information from the school, the Department teachers lean in.


“If they struggle on a section, we offer them assistance to get through their work,” he said. “Everything we do is individualized as we meet each student’s specific needs. We run a student-centric program.”


The time spent in the student’s school is crucial, said Mr. MacDonald. “Every single day, I am at one or more schools so that they know we are a consistent and reliable resource for them should they have a student who needs it.”


For example, earlier in the week, Mr. MacDonald attended a parent-student meeting at Norwalk High School to discuss the student’s lack of regular attendance. Then later that day, he went to another high school in Norwalk to meet with three Virtual Academy students about their progress. Then he went to an alternative high school in Stratford to help a student work through a physical science course module.


It is painstaking, individual work that pays off.


Students have earned over 250 academic credits that have been applied to high graduation requirements, and 79 students achieved high school graduation, according to Mr. Folan. Since the Virtual Academy’s inception in 2016, more than 1,000 high school students participated in the program.  Often these students are over-age, under-credited and in need of academic remediation, credit recovery, and credit accumulation.


One of Mr. MacDonald’s students made up enough credits last year to catch her up for her senior year so she can graduate in June. Mr. MacDonald said the Virtual Academy can prevent a youth traumatized from foster care from suffering additional negative consequences educationally.


“Once they begin to heal from the trauma, we can help them heal educationally and get them back on track,” he said.