Excel Academy

Fourteen-year-old student Jayden Forsyth does research on a computer Friday afternoon. Excel Virtual Academy is part of Calhoun County School virtual school, which has about 80 kids taking classes online. School officials say it's part of their antidote to declining enrollment. (Trent Penny/The Anniston Star) 

JACKSONVILLE – Hannah Peoples is technically a senior at White Plains High School, but she hasn’t attended classes there in more than a year.

It’s normal for her to spend an entire Friday fishing, with much of the rest of her time devoted to the Internet.

She’s not in a senior slump, and she’s no dropout. She’s one of 80 students in the first year of Calhoun County’s new virtual school, which allows students to take classes online with help from teachers in a classroom in Jacksonville.

“It’s not for everybody, but to me it’s the best option,” said Peoples, who fishes competitively and hopes to get a slot on a college team.

Calhoun County Schools officials say they were surprised at the level of interest in the online program – and they credit it, at least partly, with turning around a years-long decline in enrollment in county schools.

That problem’s not unique to Calhoun County. Schools statewide have seen enrollment go down as the population ages and Alabama continues to lag behind other states in attracting new residents. With 8,300 students in August, the county school system is up by about 50 students.

No one’s suggesting the virtual school was the only factor in the turnaround. Enrollment had been dropping by about 200 students per year before this year – and the overall population of the county was in decline.

But Natasha Scott, director of the program, said the school system was eager to hang onto students who might leave just because the normal school day doesn’t fit their lives.

“We’ve got to stop the decline in enrollment,” Scott said. “Every time someone leaves, we lose the funding that comes with that student. And the system is already 20 or 25 teachers over what the state normally allows us.”

At least five of the virtual-school students – Peoples, a budding gymnast and three competitive archers – are in the school because it helps them work around sports training. Some suffer from social anxiety. Some, Scott says, may see virtual courses as an escape from bullying. And some have simply grown frustrated with the pace of school.

“You’re truly working at your own pace, your own level,” she said. “If you get ahead, there’s no waiting while the other students catch up.”

It’s not the area’s first experience with online learning. For years, schools around the state have used online courses to supplement subjects that aren’t available in smaller or rural systems. Last year, Limestone County’s school system offered the services of a privately-run virtual school, Alabama Connections Academy, to any student in the state.

Calhoun County’s virtual option, known as Excel Virtual Academy, works a little differently than most online courses. Scott maintains real-world classrooms in Jacksonville, near the center of the county. Students have to report in once a week in person, but they can come in for classroom instruction any time they need it.

“It’s real people,” said Lauren Knapp, a junior studying through Excel. “It’s online, obviously. But I’m not talking over a phone. I’m talking to real people, I’m involved.”

Knapp said she attended Faith Christian, a private school, last year, before a medical problem began to interfere with her attendance. She said she and her parents looked at Alabama Connections Academy but picked the more local option instead.

For Knapp, the biggest struggle – and the biggest advantage – is learning to manage her own studies.

“You have to keep yourself accountable,” she said. “The toughest thing is to stay motivated.”

For Knapp, one big motivator is the requirement to get C’s or above. Fall behind academically, and you’ll be sent to the county school you’re zoned to attend.

Scott isn’t quite sure how that will work, when it does happen. And she’s convinced it will, eventually. The year is still young, but two kids have already been pulled out by parents who said their kids just aren’t ready for the virtual school learning style.

“In brick-and-mortar schools, we manage the discipline for you,” she said. “This is really teaching the students some independence and self-motivation.” She said those skills will likely serve students well in college.

When Peoples graduates next year, she’ll walk at White Plains, where she attended before leaving to homeschool last year. In fact, Peoples is still on the White Plains fishing team. Knapp expects to graduate with an Ohatchee High diploma in 2020. On paper, at least, all of Excel’s students are students at the school they’re zoned for.

That could change once the school hits 250 students, the lower limit for a virtual school to be officially recognized by the state as a separate entity. Scott is already planning for that day. The school already has a mascot – a flying owl wearing a graduation mortarboard – and what may become school colors in the form of a bright green logo.

Scott said she also works hard to create a traditional school community in other ways. Students meet and plan field trips. The school has already conducted one community service project, helping a local animal shelter with a weekend adoption drive.

“I want them to be proud to be here,” she said. “I don’t want them to miss out on that sense of community.”

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.