It was an atypical lunch period for dozens of classmates who gathered for a picnic Friday at Civitan Park in Marietta.
Despite having been in school for two weeks already, Friday was the first opportunity for many of the students from the Ohio Virtual Academy to meet their fellow peers.
"How many of you met someone new today?" asked Ohio Virtual Academy (OHVA) teacher Michelle Whitacre after an ice-breaking activity for students in third grade and higher.
JASMINE ROGERS The Marietta Times
Kindergartner Jamie Beall works on a drawing during a picnic Friday at Marietta’s Civitan Park for area students who attend the Ohio Virtual Academy. Approximately 275 Washington County students attend an online K-12 school.
Around 60 eager young hands shot up.
Nearby a dozen younger students colored pictures and interacted with their peers as well.
"We have about 70 picnics going on today all throughout the state," said Bob Matthews, OHVA Curriculum and Assessment Coordinator.
Full time equivalence of students from area school districts attending online schools:
Belpre: 35.05 .
Fort Frye: 27.59.
Wolf Creek: 3.31.
Source: Ohio Department of Education.
More than 13,000 students, ranging from kindergartners to seniors, are enrolled in the OHVA, one of several online school systems accredited by the state. That number has more than quadrupled since Matthews joined OHVA eight years ago.
In Washington County, the most recent full-time equivalence numbers show that approximately 275 students from Washington County attend an online school.
More and more students and parents seem to be going with online schooling because of the vast flexibility it provides with both timing and learning opportunities.
"It seems like in public schools, the kids have to stay at the same pace as the other kids. There is no flexibility," said Emily Camp, of Lowell.
Camp's two children, 8-year-old Brooklyn and 13-year-old Cameron, have been attending OHVA for five years, meaning Brooklyn has spent her entire academic career at the online school.
Brooklyn, a second grader, said she does not feel like she has missed any opportunities by attending the nontraditional school. Last year, she and some fellow online students even went on a field trip.
"We went to the potato chip factory, learned how they make potato chips," she said.
For Cameron, an eighth-grader, online school has provided a much more suitable learning environment than public school.
"I like it a lot better because there are not very many distractions," he said.
An online school is also better able to cater to students with specific learning needs, said sophomore Christian Teller, 16, of Sardis.
"I'm dyslexic, and the virtual academy lets us have our own program. They offer a lot more customization. I'm learning a lot more," said Teller.
However, online students need to have a high level of motivation to succeed, noted senior Roman Hirschi, 17, of Marietta.
"I think if you do well in online school depends a lot on your personality," said Hirschi, who has been enrolled with OHVA for five years. "For people who can control their schedules, it is great. For people who don't have self-control, it's hard."
When Amber DeLong was looking at middle school options for her 12-year-old son Andre Dennison, Marietta Middle School did not feel like the right option, she said. Researching her options, OHVA stood out as a great academic environment.
"I originally thought 'Am I cheating him?' But I think this curriculum is as hard if not harder than traditional school," she said.
So far the online schooling has been very "user friendly," said DeLong.
"They send you everything you need, a computer and printer in one box. All your books. They even send you classroom supplies, like a collection of rocks for his science," she said.
Another big advantage of the online model is that it gives students more access to their teacher, said Whitacre, who is entering her sixth year as an OHVA teacher.
"I am available to them much more often. Once I teach a class, it's not like I have another group in there," she said.
Whitacre teaches Algebra I to eighth grade students for high school credit and also attested to the class's flexibility.
"I have a daily class and it's recorded. So if for some reason someone can't attend, they can watch it later," she said.
Additionally, Whitacre has the option to form groups for students who need extra practice with a particular subject or to add enrichment activities for students who need a challenge.
That additional opportunity to challenge her son is the reason Tricia Beall, of Belpre enrolled her kindergartner Jamie Beall, 5, in the online school.
"I have a 20-year-old son who went to a brick and mortar school. They didn't push him. Jamie can already read. I want him to excel," she said.