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Oregon Trail Academy admin addresses influx of more full-time online students

PMG FILE PHOTO: BRITTANY ALLEN - Oregon Trail Academy hosted a drive-thru graduation for the class of 2020. When the Oregon Trail Academy graduated its first class in 2019, there were but five seniors and all successfully crossed the finish line. In 2020, due to several changes and growing pains, the charter school's graduation rate dropped to 78.26%.

This somewhat substantial change, Director Tim Norfleet says, is partially because of further diversity of the school's offerings and the still quite small graduate cohort size. With 46 total seniors last year, any number of non-graduates would've been significant. As it was, 36 of the 46 graduated. All 14 "brick-and-mortar" students graduated.

Aside from the obstacles the pandemic brought in the spring of 2020, OTA was faced with another new challenge when it took on responsibility for the full-time online students who were formerly assigned to various schools around the district.

These students, Norfleet explained, were not part of the International Baccalaurete program, which aims to provide a higher level of education focused on developing students' intellectual, emotional, personal and social skills. Many of those fully online opted for the virtual format because of social, emotional or home-life situations that make in-person schooling less advantageous, or in some cases, impossible.

"There's definitely a learning curve for adapting," Norfleet said. "We've started something to try and mitigate that."

To address the needs of these students, OTA has designated a counselor specifically for those students.

Norfleet added that, "some students take longer but complete with their cohort." This was the case for some in 2020, as they continued to work toward the finish line through summer, officially completing their classes in August.

"I think it speaks to the dedication of that case manager (that those students finish)," Norfleet explained.

For all students, Norfleet said "this year we've changed some of our practices."

In an effort to work together as a staff to ensure the success of each student, teachers are more aware of their students' progress in each class, besides just their own. This is helping educators work together to intervene when students are at risk of not progressing academically.

Teachers are also regularly communicating with parents about their students' progress. And next semester, Norfleet plans to mandate virtual parent-teacher conferences.

"Now we have a much broader base of students who need different things," Norfleet said. "I can't say (this drop in graduation rate) was a surprise. But until you work with those students and get to know what the needs are, you don't know (how to work through them). It doesn't mean we stop serving those kids— it means we have to adapt and that's what we're doing. The staff is really committed to ensuring every students' success."

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