SALT LAKE CITY (KTVX) — Schools quickly had to pivot to online learning at the beginning of the year, broaching brand new territory for many. But one charter school in Utah was already fully online and became a resource for those schools, sharing lessons about how to make virtual learning a success.

Utah Virtual Academy is a free charter school option for students across the state of Utah, and it’s completely online. The school has been called on this year to offer insights and training to other campuses trying to transition to all or part-online learning, according to Meghan Meredith, the Head of Schools.

The school has been providing mostly informal help, with lots of conversations with educators in Utah, centered on one reassuring message: “All of the traditional strategies that make them great in a brick and mortar, they can do online — it just takes a minute,” she said.

Why choose online even before the pandemic?

Meredith has led the school through a massive growth period over the last two years, drastically improving test scores and graduation rates. UTVA was placed on Turnaround Status three years ago for being in the bottom 3% of schools in the state. It’s since grown more than 25% and at the beginning of this school year, was cleared of the designation.

Pre-pandemic, students chose UTVA for a wide variety of reasons including bullying at in-person campuses, mobility and living condition concerns and academic readiness.

“Whatever the reason they came to us, we need to make sure we’re serving that before they can academically grow,” Meredith said.

UTVA sees one of the most unique student bodies in the state: 49% are economically disadvantaged, 21% have disabilities and 48% are mobile, which encompasses traveling and homeless students.

COVID-19 has dramatically increased the number of children exposed to that same kind of uncertainty at home, and Meredith says there are absolutely ways to make sure these kids are still learning.

Helping students, parents and teachers

It starts with support.

“There’s a whole team of professionals here to support the whole student,” explained Meredith — professionals like school counselors, social workers and teachers.

A student learning online at Utah Virtual Academy (KTVX Photo)
A student learning online at Utah Virtual Academy (KTVX Photo)

Kaitlyn Blackham is a UTVA School Counselor, and she recommends getting creative to communicate with students.

“Just like you do if you’re sitting one on one with that student, try to find a setting where you can talk to them one on one in a meaningful way,” Blackham said. “Whether that’s on the phone — we text with our students and some of them prefer that. We’ve had meaningful conversations over text with our students.”

The next major lesson from UTVA is not only training the kids in online tools but training the parents on what it’s like having a remote learner.

“We have specific staff at our school that support and train our parents as well,” Meredith said.

Parents learn what to look out for in their students’ behaviors and schedule and talk regularly with teachers and staff.

Finally, schools need to teach the teachers how to use the new virtual tools they’ve been given in the best way possible. UTVA says one of the biggest reasons behind its growth and success is helping teachers assess and use classroom data to make real, actionable plans for each student.

Utah Virtual Academy has seen test scores and graduation rates skyrocket in the last two years and says those numbers really boil down to time with individual students. While that time may be hard to find as a more traditional school adapts to this rapidly changing virus, it’s seen one-on-one time is crucial for success.

Partnering with the national non-profit Solutions Journalism Network, Nexstar stations nationwide are telling unique stories about how the pandemic has exposed inequities for students and the solutions some groups have found to bridge that gap.