Kendyl Schmidt, 16, of Davenport, is preparing for her next assignment in the public school where she is in the 11th grade.
So she pulls up her laptop with Shelby, her gecko, by her side and tackles her work from her porch.
Schmidt is among 21 students who live in Scott County, and more than 600 other students who attend the online Iowa Connections Academy.
Brent Schmidt, Kendyl’s father, works as a Realtor along with his wife from their home. He acts as her coach.
Schmidt’s son graduated from a brick-and -mortar school, and his younger daughter attends a brick-and-mortar school where she participates in show choir and plays.
“She likes that environment,” Brent Schmidt said. But he added that the traditional classroom environment isn’t necessarily for everybody. “It’s a choice,” he said.
Kendyl researched the possibility of attending school online, and presented it to her parents.
”I didn’t know anything about it,” Brent Schmidt said. Eventually, he said, he gave in. “I said, you know, this is something we should take a look at.”
“She did a lot of research herself, looked at bunch of different options. She narrowed it down and this is the one we all chose.”
“I was seeing if there were any alternatives to the kind of school I was in. I just wanted to escape it,” Kendyl said. “It’s an alternative school but the curriculum is not different — my diploma means the same.
“For me personally, brick-and-mortar school just wasn’t for me.”
She enrolled in the online school at the beginning of her sophomore year.
“It has the same beginning and end dates as all other Iowa schools," her father said. "She doesn’t go to an actual building; she just does it here at home.”
She has teachers and advisers similar to those of brick-and-mortar schools.
The transition wasn’t always easy, Kendyl says. “I didn’t know how to manage my time at first. In an online school you’re more self-disciplined than at a brick-and-mortar school.”
Brent Schmidt monitors her activities. “They have a wonderful way for displaying to the parent or the student what their status is,” he said.
“It’s more about working on your own pace,” Kendyl says. “An overdue lesson won’t affect your grade at all. It means you’re not on track. If you don’t understand something, a teacher has live sessions and you can get live help.”
Despite the rigor of the curriculum, she finds it less stressful than a traditional school.
“I didn’t really enjoy any aspects of a brick-and-mortar school, but I can understand that some people would miss the socialization of it,” she said, adding that online students can participate in clubs and activities if they wish.
Kendyl said students who can “be alone and happy with themselves — people who have their own self-discipline” would thrive in the online environment.
She appreciates the flexibility Connections provides. “You have to log in for a certain period of time each day. If you want to do school at 3 a.m., you can do it. You can access it at all times.”
She says she has completely changed as a person. “I’m more social, and overall a more happy person.”
Her father agrees. “Kendyl is one of those that did not interact well with the bullying, the social aspect of it. She was getting Cs and Ds at the brick-and-mortar because of the struggle to actually interpret the lessons and understand what the teacher was saying, because she was so overwhelmed by what was going on around her.”
She now earns As and Bs. “She changed as a person from being a shy, introverted person to ‘Hey, I want to this, and I want to do that,’” her dad said. For his daughter, “It’s the best thing since sliced bread. She has blossomed into a great person.”
“It’s ironic: I’m away from people but I’m more social,” Kendyl said.
Kendyl, who wants to become a game developer, will be able to participate in a graduation ceremony in West Des Moines in 2020.
Iowa Connections principal James Brauer, of Atlantic said Kendyl is among the successful students who have the drive and the support to succeed online.
Brauer, formerly an assistant principal at North Kansas City Schools and a special education teacher in Kansas, says that after seven years of operating a full-time public virtual school in Iowa, he continues to dispel myths about online academics.
“There is still some confusion that Iowa Connections Academy operates as a home school,” he said. “Schooling at home is different from home schooling.
“As a public school we have the same rules, the same regulations, the same accreditation requirement needs to meet ... We may be online, but we’re not mutually exclusive of those requirements. This isn’t a substandard operation. We want to do this with fidelity.”
Another misconception is that students need to attend brick-and-mortar schools because they need socialization, he said.
Some families choose the online model because their students are emerging Olympians or other athletes whose training and competition does not allow them time to attend their resident school districts. “They need the ability to allow their talents to carry on with that while receiving an education. “
Other students have different challenges, such as anxiety, autoimmune deficiencies or severe allergies.
“It’s not socialization that student needs, it’s a safe learning environment,” he said.
Additionally, “We might have now a total of 15 to 17 students who chose to enroll (partially) because they identify themselves as transgender and do not feel comfortable in public school … a student just wanting to be who they are and felt that a traditional learning environment was not safe.
“The student can now be exactly who they want to be and thrive academically.”
“There’s a story about each individual student. Socialization is not the most pressing concern for the family.”
Leaning coaches play a major role in student success. “A learning coach can be a parent, guardian, someone who has been identified by the family as the go-to, the coach at home,” Brauer said. “They’re really helping the student remain on task, provide the real time, the immediate assistance and redirection.”
Families often underestimate the rigor of the curriculum, he said. “It sometimes contributes to a decision to withdraw from the program.”
In an average year, the academy withdraws 9 to 10 percent of its students, who often say, “This is a lot more difficult than we thought.”
From the moment the student starts school, the entire student planner and scheduler is established so the student completes work by the end of the school year, with students progressing at their own pace.
“To some families, that is very overwhelming,” He said. “It takes a lot of time. It is a true commitment.”
A student who has a high level or perseverance, or grit, and is strong at task management is a good candidate for Connections, he said. “This model can work only if we have that commitment on all three levels: Student, parent and teacher,”
All the teachers work from home full-time, he said. They range from fresh out of college to veterans with 15 to 18 years of experience who live all over the state, with many in Des Moines.
Students are eligible by law to attend virtual school by way of open-enrollment law, he said.
“Just like every other open-enrollment situation, there is a transfer of student funding,” he said. “In essence, student funding follows the student based on the number of days they attend. Student tuition follows the student.”
Additionally, this year brings another opportunity. “There was a change in state law this year that we thought wouldn’t go into effect until next school year. In essence, as a part of this school choice, they’ve changed the law to now allow students to participate in sports and clubs in their resident school district. This is a game-changer,” Brauer said.
Online students now can participate in up to two activities per year in their home school district. Additionally, each school district can create a policy that would let those students participate in anything.
“This is going to meet the needs of many families that never considered this as an option for many reasons.”