Public, online schools provide options for students, parents


Washington Connections Academy one of many online schools approved by the state as parents search for alternatives during pandemic

When traditional, on-campus schooling shut down in March, confusion reigned among students, teachers, administrators and parents as to how to proceed.

Now, some six weeks before the start of another traditional school year, it is still confusing to many as school districts across the country try to figure out the next steps while living through a pandemic.

Some parents are looking in a new direction.

Executives for online schooling say interest has skyrocketed in the past few months.

Clark County Today reached out to two students, and their parents, who are part of Washington Connections Academy, a free public school, to get their insight into online schooling.

Clark County students Makenna Nastri and Alex Hugo are among the many who prefer the flexibility of online schooling.

Makenna Nastri of Battle Ground, who will be a junior in high school, has been an online-only student since the middle of her eighth-grade year. She is a rider in equestrian events and tours out of state from April through November.

Alex Hugo will be a seventh-grader. A 12-year-old actor who lives in Camas, he needed flexibility with his schedule in case he needed to fly to Los Angeles for an audition, for example.

Alex Hugo, 12, of Camas, is a full-time online student with Washington Connections Academy, a free public school. Photo courtesy of Tracey Hugo
Alex Hugo, 12, of Camas, is a full-time online student with Washington Connections Academy, a free public school. Photo courtesy of Tracey Hugo

Washington Connections Academy, though, is not just for students with non-traditional schedules. It can be for the advanced student who wants to work his or her own pace. It can be for a student who struggled in a traditional setting but can better focus from the security of home.

For Makenna Nastri, it is all about having more options as to when to study.

“It was a little intimidating the first couple of weeks. After the first couple of weeks went by, OK, this is cool,” Nastri said. “I can do it on my own time and have flexibility. That was the most important thing, I had a lot of flexibility.”

As an athlete, she trains every day.

On days she is not competing, she gets up every morning to work on school, takes a break, then trains with her horse. A few hours later, she returns to her school work.

Battle Ground’s Makenna Nastri, who will be a junior, has been an online student for a few years now. An athlete who tours often for equestrian and is out of state for months at a time, Nastri, needed more flexibility with her school schedule than traditional schooling allows. Photo courtesy of Sara Shier
Battle Ground’s Makenna Nastri, who will be a junior, has been an online student for a few years now. An athlete who tours often for equestrian and is out of state for months at a time, Nastri, needed more flexibility with her school schedule than traditional schooling allows. Photo courtesy of Sara Shier

Or, if there is a horse show the next week, she can double-up her workload this week to try to get ahead. Nastri said she feels less stress when she is caught up, or ahead, in her school work during weeks she is competing.

“I like this better,” she said, referring to online school.

She is getting her education while pursuing her passion.

“It’s the best sport on the planet. You get to sit on the nicest horses. It’s kind of my happy place,” Nastri said. “It was my mom’s happy place when she was younger. Now it’s my happy place.”

“Horses are in your blood,” Sara Nastri said to her daughter.

Makenna started online schooling in the eighth grade.

“That year, I was very involved, working alongside her,” Sara Nastri said. “By the time we got to the next year, she was totally in control. She was pretty darn self independent.”

Alex Hugo and family recently moved to Clark County from Oregon. Alex caught the acting bug as a 5-year old, while watching a production of The Sound of Music.

“How do I get up there?” he asked his parents.

Alex Hugo has been acting since he was 5 years old. Now, 12, he has an agent. Because of his unorthodox schedule, he asked his parents to attend online school. Photo courtesy Michael Verity Photography
Alex Hugo has been acting since he was 5 years old. Now, 12, he has an agent. Because of his unorthodox schedule, he asked his parents to attend online school. Photo courtesy Michael Verity Photography

Alex has been acting ever since. In December, he signed on with an agency. He has had a few roles as extras in studio productions, and he was an actor in the award-winning commercial “Growing Up Rip City” about the Portland Trail Blazers.

Tracey Hugo, Alex’s mom, said online schooling was not just for Alex. His schedule made it unfair to the rest of the class in his traditional school, unfair for the teacher. Alex was leaving town on a moment’s notice for an audition, which meant more work for the teacher in grading make-up assignments and the like.

Alex had been asking to try online schooling for a while when mom and dad said yes earlier this year.

“I wake up at 7:30. I do the lessons. If there is a day with a live lesson, we’ll do that. Every class is about an hour long,” Alex said. “Learn the subject. Do the lesson on that subject. Next day, maybe get a quiz.”

Students are encouraged to have a set schedule when they can.

Much like the Nastri family, the Hugo family also needed some time to adjust to online classes.

“There is a learning curve to the program,” Tracey Hugo said. “The learning curve was about six weeks. When he first started, we allowed him to be independent.”

His grades dropped, though.

“Oh my gosh, what did we just do?” Tracey asked herself.

But after some calls to teachers and after following a few recommendations, Alex caught up and returned to being a solid student.

“He grasped all of that before I did. ‘Mom, I got it,’” Tracey said.

The pandemic hit just a couple weeks after Alex started online schooling. While changes were made, for the most part, school went on as normal.

“Schools were hoping it was short term,” Tracey Hugo said, referring to traditional schools. “Clearly now everybody is having to figure out what an entire year is going to look like. The program Alex is doing, they’ve been doing it for many years, and it runs like a well-oiled machine.”

For Makenna Nastri, when the pandemic hit, she was already way ahead in her semester of work. She was preparing to leave Battle Ground for her California tour in April.

“Her schedule didn’t change,” Sara Nastri said.

That is by design.

“We made a few adjustments,” said Jenn Francis, executive director of Washington Connections Academy, referring to changes during the pandemic. “For the most part, we feel we got a full day’s work out of our students.”

Distance learning has become a familiar term in the last few months. Online schools have been distance learning for years.

“We know what we’re doing. We’ll take good care of families,” Francis said, noting it is just a new way to think about learning.

Clark County students Makenna Nastri and Alex Hugo are among the many who prefer the flexibility of online schooling.

There are scheduled live classes. Students are encouraged to be there online in real time but if their schedules conflict, they can use the archive system to take the class later that night or the next day, for example.

There are designated student support times, the equivalent of office hours, for teachers to be on hand to reply to a text, a chat request, or a phone call — whatever works best for a family.

Washington Connections Academy has three schools, supported by three public school districts throughout the state. Francis is confident that the academy can find the right fit for a student.

She said there are about 2,400 students state-wide, in K-12 classes through the academy. Francis said she expects that number to rise considerably this coming school year.

“Don’t be afraid to try it. We are well equipped to support our families,” Francis said. “If you’re interested, don’t hesitate to reach out and ask questions. We’re gearing up for a wonderful school year.”

Notes: For more information on Washington Connections Academy, go to: https://www.connectionsacademy.com/washington-online-school. Washington Connections is just one of many online schools approved to provide studies for students in the state. For a full list and more information, go to: https://www.k12.wa.us/student-success/learning-alternatives/online-learning

About The Author

Paul Valencia joins ClarkCountyToday.com after more than two decades of newspaper experience. He became the face of high school sports coverage in Clark County during his 17 years at The Columbian. Before moving to Vancouver, Paul worked at Oregon daily newspapers in Pendleton, Roseburg, and Salem. A graduate of David Douglas High School in Portland, Paul enlisted in the U.S. Army, serving three years as a soldier/journalist. He and his wife Jenny recently celebrated their 20th anniversary. They have a son who has a passion for karate and Minecraft. Paul’s hobbies include: Watching the Raiders play football, reading about the Raiders playing football, and waiting to watch and read about the Raiders playing football.

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