Students say virtual school helps them succeed

Christopher Hogan works on a report at his computer station that he shares with his seven brothers and sisters. Christopher and his 13-year-old sister, Samantha, are enrolled in the Texas Connections Academy virtual school through the Houston school district.
  • QUICK FACTS

  • • Texas Connections Academy uses a curriculum in line with the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills that the state analyzes on standardized tests.

    • The Hogans said they took the STAAR test at Sylvan Learning Center in Victoria.

    • To enroll, parents need ...

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  • QUICK FACTS

    • Texas Connections Academy uses a curriculum in line with the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills that the state analyzes on standardized tests.

    • The Hogans said they took the STAAR test at Sylvan Learning Center in Victoria.

    • To enroll, parents need to provide typical documents needed for public school, such as immunization and residency records.

    • During a live class, students can see teachers "draw" on their computer screens, and can interact by sending the teacher questions or answers. Students can also interact with the other students in the online classroom.

    • To learn more about the curriculum and technology, or to request information or contact a current TCA parent, go to connectionsacademy.com and click on Texas.

In one room, one student was typing up a paper on the civil rights contributions of James Farmer Jr.

Down the hall, another student was giving a bottle to her baby sister before hitting the dreaded math book.

Mom looked over their shoulders occasionally, a 7-week-old baby perpetually resting on her own shoulder.

This is school at the Hogan house - not quite homeschool, not quite public school. Instead, Christopher and Samantha Hogan, both seventh-graders, take classes at a virtual school called Texas Connections Academy.

The online school runs through the Houston Independent School District and serves 1,777 students across Texas. Begun as a pilot program in 2008, seven Victoria students and eight other students in the Crossroads take classes in the third through 10th grade school, which is looking to expand to 11th and 12th grades soon.

"We homeschooled everybody for two years and watched that it wasn't meeting the needs of everybody," said Sandy Hogan, Christopher and Samantha's mom. "I could see boredom setting in on some of their faces. Some of them seemed a little withdrawn."

With eight kids in the household, all of whom Hogan and her husband have adopted or are in the process of adopting, Hogan said she was looking for schooling options that fit the needs of both her kids and her own limitations as a busy mom.

Their older brother has found he excels at Faith Academy, while their second- and fourth-grade siblings are enjoying their education at Smith Elementary School. But for Christopher and Samantha, Texas Connections Academy was the solution.

"I couldn't believe it was real," Hogan said about the school. "I guess what I couldn't believe is it was free, and it was all-inclusive."

Texas Connections Academy is funded by the state on a per-pupil basis, just like any other public school in Texas. The district sends its students books, art supplies and PE gear, like a yoga DVD and jump rope. When the Hogans joined, TCA also sent them a computer and reimbursed the family for Internet access, though TCA will no longer foot those costs in the future.

Students are even given the opportunity to go on field trips to meet other students with whom they've interacted online. Recently, Samantha and Christopher visited Navy ships in Corpus Christi with some of their classmates scattered across Southern Texas.

Christopher and Samantha said they've developed self-motivation and good study habits since enrolling in the school last year. TCA students work at their own paces and on their own schedules to complete their work - freedoms that quickly teach them the perils of procrastination.

"It's helped me to learn how to stay focused in school and not have too many distractions," Christopher said. "If I don't do it now, then later it's going to all be piled up. It's better to just get it over with."

Christopher always starts out his school days with the most laboring subject: math. Meanwhile, Samantha prefers to get warmed up with English language arts, which comes easier to her. Hogan said the flexibility has catered to her two children with different abilities and learning styles.

"I like this (school) better because you get to work at your own pace, and you don't have teachers yelling at you to hurry up," Samantha said. "If you need help, you can actually call your teachers, and they'll walk you through it."

Hogan said Samantha's learning style is perfectly suited for TCA, as she can play back old, animated lessons to recall concepts with which she's struggling. The pressure of competing with peers or lack of confidence that comes with falling behind is just a memory of her two years in public school. Plus, she has a great relationship with her teachers, who after live lessons always make themselves available to chat on the phone about her schoolwork.

"It's really close because you can just call them whenever," Samantha said. "In public school, you can't really do that with teachers because they're busy with other students, and they can't get to you."

Hogan said her job is to stay in tune with her kids' needs and ensure they have a peaceful, reliable home environment in which they can learn - no matter where they go to school.

Samantha thinks she'll stick with TCA for now, while Christopher said he's ready to follow his older brother into Faith Academy next year.

But there is at least one thing Christopher will miss about his virtual school.

"No lunch line," he said, smiling.