WESTFIELD – The School Committee signed off on the Westfield Virtual K-8 School plan on June 21 in one of the last steps before the new school is officially established with the state.
Registration for the school has been extended through the summer.
Susan Dargie, director of curriculum and instruction, and Denise Ruszala, director of assessment and accountability, told the committee they recently met with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to provide additional information and are completing their plan submission.
Ruszala said DESE was “very favorable” towards the plan, but wanted more explicit details as well as monthly or quarterly updates. She said the school committee will provide the oversight for the school, and DESE will provide guidance. Dargie said virtual schools are permitted by law, but up until now, no district has implemented one.
“Under the law, there are certain requirements. You have to notify DESE and submit a preliminary plan four months before you open, and the final plan to DESE will be submitted on July 6,” Dargie said, adding that no school choice students may be accepted at this time.
Dargie said a team has been working on the development of the Virtual K-8 School since December. She said they wanted to make a comprehensive plan for parents, teachers and the community. The plan delves into the intention for the school and how it will be different from a brick and mortar school, with more exploration time to explore specialized interests and special subjects, for example.
The plan is posted on the district website at www.schoolsofwestfield.org, along with a link to register for the school.
While initially there was a June deadline to register, registration has now been extended through the summer. Ruszala said the registration for the Virtual School is following the same pattern as with kindergarten and other student enrollment, which slows down after school gets out and gets busy again in August. “We’re pretty comfortable with the projection of 100 students,” Ruszala said, adding, “We’re confident that it will be successful.”
Forty-nine students in K-8 have signed up to date, all of whom have been accepted into the program. Ruszala told the school committee that there are three main reasons families are choosing the Virtual School: 50 percent are applying because their student has been doing well in a remote learning environment; 25 percent for medical reasons or because of apprehensions about COVID-19, and the final 25 percent are looking for home-school alternatives, she said.
Students in the Virtual School will have access to more robust chromebooks, hotspots and digital cameras. “All technology and materials will be provided to families at no cost, just as if it were a brick and mortar school,” Dargie said.
The next step will be to select a principal and staff members, which they said will help to generate enthusiasm for the program. Dargie said a principal search is going on right now due to the retirement of Southampton Road Principal Kathleen O’Donnell, and some candidates may be interested in the Virtual School, as are some teachers. The principal position for the Virtual School is not yet posted, but will be happening soon, she said.
School Committee member Bo Sullivan asked if there is a minimum number per grade level required. Dargie said multi-age classrooms occur throughout the district, and may be utilized in the Virtual School. She said they are easier to do in a virtual environment, such as in a mixed reading group.
Asked about English language learners, Ruszala said if there are ELL students among the applicants, they will receive the services needed, as required by law.
Dargie said they are not building high school into the Virtual School at this time, but will build up the program with current eighth graders, and can add ninth grade next year. She said high school students have other options, such as dual enrollment in area colleges and taking online courses. She said the district can also do individual learning plans for high school students, and DESE is allowing students in Individual Education Plans (IEP) to go virtual.
“We do invite families to enroll in the Virtual K-8 School using our application link right up until school starts. Everyone who has already enrolled has been accepted, and we still have seats available in each grade level,” Dargie said, adding that if people have questions, they can contact the curriculum office at 413-562-2298.