Nowhere is pandemic disruption more evident than in the day-to-day experiences of our kids in school. Across metro Detroit, schools scrambled to create virtual classrooms, then adopted hybrid schedules, finally returning to in-classroom instruction — and, in some cases, making that the only choice for families. Meanwhile, the Virtual Learning Academy Consortium (VLAC) at Oakland Schools remained busy, fulfilling its mission to provide a public school at-home learning option for families and kids, kindergarten through 12th grade.
“We have always met the need for flexibility in a child’s education and for 10 years have provided this for kids who have professional athletic careers. We’ve helped educate gymnasts, skaters, fencers, junior golfers and others, as well as kids who have medical or other reasons they can’t be in the classroom,” explains Dianne Shepich, VLAC Director.
Over the past year, VLAC has grown exponentially, as parents seek alternatives to traditional classroom environments. Some parents have also left the workforce to dedicate more time to their families and pursue a more flexible career or pace of life — and they’re seeking ways to educate their children at home.
VLAC has grown from a typical enrollment of about 300 students over the past 10 years to about 800 students today and has doubled its teaching staff to accommodate this growth. VLAC reaches beyond Oakland County to serve students in 69 school districts in six counties.
There’s a lot to know about VLAC, says Shepich, and families that understand the structure and commitment required to educate their children at home find the most success with this educational choice.
Here, we share what you need to know about the benefits of educating your child with VLAC, and what makes this program different from other virtual learning experiences.
Parents are involved
When schools adopted virtual classrooms for their students out of necessity, many used synchronous learning, where the teacher taught the students all together online. By contrast, VLAC is asynchronous, with no teacher leading the study.
“With VLAC, the parents are the learning guides,” Shepich says. For the youngest kids, parents are very involved in their child’s education and essentially work with their child on tasks in one of two chosen curricula that align with Michigan educational standards.
“Parents who are homeschooling their children sing the praises of Oakland Schools VLAC because they are provided a whole scripted curriculum. There’s a lesson for every subject, every day and all supplies and textbooks are provided,” she explains.
VLAC teachers provide a weekly 45-minute lesson that lines up with the curriculum and provides additional enrichment and vocabulary, making it easy to stay on pace. “Our teachers grade all the assignments for the grade level and can provide help to coach the parent, offer tips for using the online curriculum, even help kids with math problems, if needed,” Shepich says.
As children get older and become more independent, they can work in a self-guided way, and many students spend between three and six hours learning each day. “Some students really rock it and stay on pace and get straight As and scholarships for college,” Shepich says. “Some of our students are ridiculously smart and really enjoy the flexibility of VLAC.”
Parents appreciate the time they can spend with their child, both learning and taking advantage of off-peak family field trips to museums, parks, even vacations. “There are so many benefits for families. Their kids work hard, get the work done, they’re focused one-on-one with their parent and not distracted. Some days they get work done in two or three hours and can spend more hours of the day engaged as a family,” Shepich says.
Meetups, events and field trips
What makes Oakland Schools VLAC so different from other virtual learning programs is the outreach available to families that participate. Through Mentor Meetups, field trips and special events, students build relationships, learn new things and have fun with other kids.
Typically held in-person at Oakland Schools in Waterford Township monthly or bimonthly, Mentor Meetups are a chance for students to meet face-to-face with mentor teachers. Due to COVID, Mentor Meetups are currently being conducted virtually a few times during the school year.
“In past years, the kids would come to our building and meet with their teacher in the morning and then stay for lunch. They love having the chance to see their teacher and engage in a fun activity, and it’s always something related to an aspect of their learning that they might need help with,” Shepich says. “Even though kids see their teachers each week in the live lesson, there are so many things that are hard to do virtually.”
Approximately four times each year, students gather for special themed events, where students can engage in architecture, astronomy, art, math competitions, robotics, snakes and other reptiles, even a writing event that gives kids the chance to publish their own book.
“We had a cooking event with different stations and students could learn how to make a smoothie, an appetizer and a main dish, and then taste what they made,” Shepich says. “A caterer came in and showed the children how to professionally garnish their plates — even create decorations in chocolate. It was really fun for the students.”
In addition to Mentor Meetups and events, VLAC coordinates a field trip for students approximately four times each year, moving around different counties to make the trips more accessible to families. “We’ve been to Morley Candy where Sanders candies are made, Domino Farms, Spicer Orchards in Fenton, the Detroit Zoo, the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum, and the Robot Garage,” Shepich says. All three enrichment programs give students a chance to bond and learn from each other.
For families that want to enjoy maximum involvement in their child’s education, Oakland Schools VLAC is a smart choice, says Shepich, who worked to build the program a decade ago and has served as a teacher with VLAC.
“I’m thrilled by the growth we have had this past year,” says Shepich. “We scaled fast because we had to and the kids deserve it. Our teachers know their stuff and we have a superb staff. Kids still get the same superior education and parents are grateful.”
Learn more about Oakland Schools Virtual Learning Academy Consortium at virtuallearningacademyconsortium.org.