By Philip Haldiman, Independent Newsmedia
At 13 years old, Ryan Williams is pursing a professional dancing career and his choice in schooling is helping him achieve that goal.
The Peoria teen is able to take rigorous dance classes from some of the best teachers in the country and compete in international contests while keeping up with his education, thanks to online public school.
“With 25 hours of class each week, plus three to four hours of private weekly lessons, online school gives Ryan the opportunity to pursue his passion, that he hopes to make a career, while receiving a public school education,” said mom Rachel Williams.
Online public school, which Ryan switched to in fall 2016, gives him flexibility in his studies — which he is excelling at, averaging As and Bs. Online schooling also allowed him to work through spring break so he could attend two international competitions earlier this year.
The teen, who has taken dance classes for nearly as long as he has been able to move on his feet, started training at L.A. Dance studio in Peoria and is now enrolled in the pre-professional ballet program at the nationally recognized Master Ballet Academy in Scottsdale.
This summer Ryan attended a six-week, audition-only, summer intensive at Houston Ballet Academy on a full-ride scholarship. Proving his mettle, he has competed in a number of international competitions, most recently winning two gold medals and one silver medal at the American Dance Competition/Youth International Ballet Competition in Florida.
Preparing for his future in dance, his passport has been processed and he is ready for opportunities overseas.
Ryan said the awards are awesome, but the real honor is being invited to the international competitions.
“Sometimes I get nervous, but when they call my name, I tell myself, ‘I’m doing this.’ And I go for it,” he said.
Arizona Online Instruction has existed in this state since 1998, and it appears it is here to stay. In 2015, Arizona had 38 schools offering online instruction totaling 43,994 students, and the next year there were 40 schools with 46,917 students. Between the 2009-10 and 2010-11 school years, there was a sizable jump of 36 percent in students receiving online instruction.
AOIs are approved by the Arizona State Board of Education and can include full- or part-time instruction, as well as institutions that provide face-to-face instruction and online only instruction.
Kerri Wright, principal of online public school Arizona Connections Academy, said the school has been in existence for 13 years and started with one teacher. The school provides full- and part-time instruction and has seen significant growth since it opened, breaking 2,000 in enrollment for the last two years, with the possibility of a lottery wait list in the coming year. The school has an enrollment of about 2,150 and a cap of 2,500, a staff of 54 full-time teachers and eight part-time teachers, all certified.
“I really think more people are learning about online schools,” she said. “It is word of mouth. Our families are sharing it with their friends.”
Students can enroll full-time or part-time in online schools, and the level of personal engagement between the teacher and student, as well as testing methods, range depending on the school. Online schools also boast a variety of students enrolled for any number of reasons, from those with disabilities to those with parents who want to take a more active role in their child’s education. Online schools also have a significant number of athletes and artists, like Ryan, a seventh-grader at Arizona Connections Academy, who use its flexibility to pursue their passions while earning a high school diploma, Ms. Wright said.
The school’s annual Parent Satisfaction Survey revealed that 46 percent of families chose ACA because they needed or wanted greater flexibility, the top reason for enrolling in the online school.
“Some parents choose online schools because their children might have social issues or their kids are not comfortable in a traditional school,” Ms. Wright said. “But flexibility is a big reason parents choose ACA.”
Online programing has become more prevalent in Arizona public school districts and brick and mortar schools. Chandler Unified School District and Mesa Public Schools offer full-time online enrollment. In the Peoria Unified School District, students are required to be enrolled in at least one face-to-face class to take an online class. PUSD officials do not recommend students take more than two online classes at one time.
Cindy Maas, eCampus Administrator at PUSD, said other public school districts or online providers are not competitors. Rather, to meet the needs of all students, PUSD offers a wide variety of programs, including eCampus, its virtual high school that uses certified teachers.
She said online instruction can offer an engaging, convenient and flexible educational experience, however it requires self motivation and discipline, as well as effective writing, time management skills and technical literacy.
While the district offers enough courses for a student to be 100 percent online, that is not an option in PUSD at this time.
Ms. Maas said the eCampus holds in-person orientations and exams because the district considers the face-to-face meetings integral to student success. In addition, students have the opportunity to attend in-person tutoring with their instructors on a weekly bases, if necessary.
“In Peoria, our virtual high school is all-encompassing in that we also provide personal service rather than just an online experience,” Ms. Maas said. “We also feel the rigor of our courses is superior to many other online providers and aligns directly with the courses that a student might take in our brick and mortar classrooms.”
A BRIGHT FUTURE
Ryan’s parents knew they had a talent on their hands when, at two-years-old, his ears perked up to the sight of the gargantuan balloons and intricate floats over the streets of Manhattan during the telecast of the 2005 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
The dancers and float entertainers sparked Ryan to move. He was so enraptured by the dances that he watched the parade over and over on DVR, memorizing the moves and then performing them along side the TV as the professionals danced on the small screen.
Ryan started taking dance classes after that, and he hasn’t stopped.
Ms. Williams said parents will see their children take an interest in something, but this was more than that.
“It opened a door to his soul and exposed him to the knowledge of the gift he was given,” she said. “He was able to pick up choreography from a very young age and remember it, and every year he just wants to do more.”
Ryan is set to graduate by 18 years old, and has plans to begin dual enrollment in college courses in 10th grade.
Online schooling is a key aspect moving forward to college, like it might be for a young prospective professional baseball player shooting for the majors, Ms. Williams said.
“With his online school experience, he is a perfect candidate for success to take college courses online as he is already exposed to the online curriculum style,” she said. “We are trying to stay open to options. If he wants to go to school with a dance scholarship, he can do that. He is also looking at ballet companies and Broadway. Ryan stays humbled to train hard and make his career a marathon — it’s not a sprint to peak at 13 or 14. He hopes to keep working hard every day and be ready for this to be his career.”
More about AOIs
The Arizona Department of Education regulates and calculates the funding related to students attending Arizona Online Instruction, said Stefan Swiat a spokesperson for the department.
Any public district or charter school may apply to the Arizona State Board of Education to become an AOI provider, able to serve any K-12 student in the state with part-time or full-time online instruction. Annual reports by AOIs are also submitted to ADE.
Ms. Swiat said depending on what the student wants out of online instruction, all sorts of different guidance can be provided, and parents could receive a lot of that information at their child’s traditional school.
To learn more about Peoria Unified’s eCampus visit peoriaunified.org/ecampus.
Source: Arizona Department of Education