Online program puts new spin on student learning

by Jessica Else
The Argus Observer

ONTARIO — Oregon Connections Academy puts a new spin on education with online classes for students in kindergarten through grade 12.

The virtual school held an information session at Four Rivers Cultural Center this week to answer questions. One family was in attendance. Janet Carlsen and Carrie Hargrove, teachers at the virtual school, hosted the session.

“We work in a virtual environment, so we connect with our students on the Internet in real time classrooms,” said Carlsen, who is from Summerville and teaches elementary school at Oregon Connections Academy. “And we also spend a lot of time on the phone supporting our students.”

Oregon Connections Academy, which opened in 2005, is an accredited public charter school that works through the Scio School District. During the 2013-14 school year, there were about 3,700 students in attendance, 60 of whom were from Malheur County and the surrounding areas.

The virtual school combines a rigorous curriculum with Oregon-certified teachers and unique technologies to provide students with an individualized approach to education.

“There are more teachers and there are more courses, and you can set your own pace,” said Taylor Hunt, a senior taking classes from Island City. “I am taking extra courses because I have more free time. I have digital photography this year.”

The virtual school offers a wide spectrum of Advanced Placement classes, as well as remedial classes. Students have access to subjects such as Japanese and sign language that they might not get in a traditional classroom.

“We have peer tutoring for credits, AP calculus and a dual-enrollment program,” Hunt said. “We can take courses online through [the academy] and get college credit for them.”

The online school also has an active Career and Technical Education program, which allows high school students to explore different career paths through semester- or year-long courses.

“They are electives,” said Laura Dillon, Oregon Connections Academy’s school outreach manger said. “These classes are like criminal investigation and accounting.”

Dillon said the program allows students to earn credit while learning about their own interests.

“They get to dabble in something that they may be interested in or take something that they have no idea about,” Dillon said. “It gives them more of a focus for high school and their career after high school.”

Oregon Connections Academy offers social opportunities for its students as well as individualized academic plans. Students can get involved in various clubs centered around subjects such as chess, video games, the environment and careers.

“My son did the Science in the Kitchen and tried to blow us up once,” Katie Flynn from Island City, said with a laugh. “But he loved it.”

Science in the Kitchen Club generates excitement among the students with hands-on projects that turn the student’s home kitchen into a science lab. The club focuses on subjects like buoyancy, light and plant science.

Field trips are also a big part of learning through the academy. Students, parents and teachers all work together to create educational opportunities for the entire school. One trip they look forward to is an outing to the Ladd Marsh Wildlife Area near La Grande.

“In the spring they band owls and they take us out for the owl banding. As teachers, that’s one of our responsibilities: to provide those opportunities for the students,” Carlsen said.

Parents who enroll their children in the academy can take on the roll of learning coach, in which they help supervise lessons and become involved daily in their child’s education. They are required to record attendance for their child and help answer questions.

“As the kids get older, they pass up what I know, and I can just send them straight to the teacher,” said Flynn. “It can become very hands off.”

Flynn, who has two children enrolled in the virtual academy, said the individualized education is what drew her to the online academy.

“We came from third grade [traditional school] for my son, and he’s now an eighth-grader. He has learning disabilities,” Flynn said. “We had a lot of nos when we were at the brick-and-mortar school. With this, it is built for him to do what he needs to do.”

Stephen Phillips, superintendent at Malheur County Education Service District, said that while online schools have benefits, the traditional brick-and-mortar environment is still the ideal learning atmosphere for many students.

“Education is about relationships. It is about students and teachers growing together, learning together and helping each other,” Phillips said. “It’s the ideal platform for education as a general rule.”

Phillips, who has his Ph.D. in educational leadership, said he does recognize the need for virtual education in many situations.

“There are some kids that learn much better in an online environment. They really thrive online. I definitely think it’s needed for those kids,” Phillips said.

“The Oregon Connections Academy, I think they’ve got it dialed in pretty good. They’ve been around for a while, and they have a relationship with the Oregon Department of Education.”

Jessica Else is a news reporter at The Argus Observer. She can be reached at (541) 823-4822 or by emailing To comment on this story, go to