An online charter school in Oregon sets up local field trips for students to interact with one another.

Students from across the Portland area were in Hillsboro last week exploring Jackson Bottom Wetlands, but unlike many of the field trips which make their way to the nature park each year, the students in Thursday's trip had never met, despite years of attending the same school.

On Thursday, April 12, students from Oregon Connections Academy descended on the wetlands preserve to take in nature and socialize.

ORCA is an online public school operating under a charter with the Santiam Canyon School District in Mill City.

COURTESY PHOTO: ORCA - ORCA students of all ages are encouraged to attend field trips to socialize with other online students.The largest online school in the state, ORCA mirrors traditional brick-and-mortar schools as closely as possible, with traditional lessons, homework and deadlines, logging into websites to complete their work.

The school has plenty of advantages, supporters say. Students work at their own pace and the virtual setting allows them to log in from anywhere to complete assignments, and students have more one-on-one communication with teachers. But there are drawbacks. Without a classroom of their peers to interact with socially, many of the softer aspects of the school life go missing.

"That's probably the only downside to online is you have to get your socialization obviously in other places," said Al McKnight, whose granddaughter, Abby, attends ORCA. "You're not going to get it when you're at home doing online schooling with no recesses and no kids to talk to."

Kathleen Dingle, a Hillsboro resident and educator of 28 years, switched from a traditional school to an online setting just last year. She said she stumbled upon the opportunity and was initially unsure about the idea of teaching online.

"I wasn't sure I was going to like it, because I do like interacting with kids a lot and I was afraid I was going to miss that," Dingle said. "But I swear, I talk to kids constantly and I am probably getting to know them better than I did in a brick-and-mortar, because I'm getting to know their families as well."

ORCA organizes regular field trips statewide for students and family to interact with one another.

"I think (field trips are) important because it is another way to reach out and hopefully connect with other students," Al McKnight said. "Abby wants to go to them mainly to try to establish some more friendships."

Abby McKnight is in the fifth grade and in her first year with ORCA. To make sure she doesn't miss out socially, Al McKnight said she is involved in several extracurricular activities after school nearly every day.

"She is self-motivated and she's an achiever," Al McKnight said. "You don't have to prod her to do (her work). I don't see her ever going back to (a traditional) school."

Abby joined the school last year, after telling her parents she wasn't being challenged in school.

"The last couple years, she's felt like she has been held back because basically the teacher has to teach 30 kids," Al McKnight said. "So (the teacher) is trying to teach anywhere from kids that need a lot of help to kids that don't need any help."

Dingle, a high school academic advisor with ORCA, teaches students how to succeed academically in an online school setting. She chats with students by phone or online to answer questions and work with students.

"If I had had this opportunity when my children were younger, I would've really appreciated it," she said. "I have been very pleasantly surprised as an educator in that I have a lot more contact with students and their families than I really expected in an all online format."

As classrooms across the nation become more and more crowded, there could be an increasing demand for online schools.

"I'm not having to address classroom management issues on a daily basis," Dingle said. "With not having to address that, I can address a lot of other things with kids like, how can we help you be successful."

ORCA is organizing informational sessions for parents and students at 6:30 p.m., April 17, at Hilton Garden Inn, 15520 N.W. Gateway Court, and May 17 at Residence Inn, 18855 N.W. Tanasbourne Drive.

By Olivia Singer
Reporter, Forest Grove News-Times and Hillsboro Tribune
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