Amy Johnson has been head of schools at Arkansas Virtual Academy since 2018. ARVA is a K-12 open-enrollment public charter school for more than 4,000 students. She began teaching in 1997 and joined ARVA as an English teacher in 2015.
Johnson graduated from Missouri State University in Springfield with a bachelor’s degree in secondary education and later completed her master’s in curriculum, instruction and assessment from Walden University.
Have the pay increases for public school teachers affected how you recruit?
The pay increases haven’t changed the way we recruit as much as they have changed our applicant pool. The leveling of the starting rate has allowed Arkansas Virtual Academy to be an option financially for a wider group of teachers. We are seeing a larger applicant pool with a much broader experience level than we’ve seen in the past.
What are the benefits of having virtual school?
Virtual learning provides a highly individualized approach for students. Most of our students experience a mix of synchronous and asynchronous learning that allows them to pursue their passions and receive instruction based on each student’s needs. Additionally, students can take courses designed for their interests and future careers. ARVA offers more than 23 career certification areas in 11 different career paths and various hands-on work and internship opportunities.
What activities take place at your brick-and-mortar school in downtown Little Rock?
The ARVA Education Hub hosts student activities like picnics, CPR classes and EAST lab days. In addition, it’s where we host our ongoing teacher training. We’ve also partnered with the Division of Career & Technical Education to have space available for its training needs and will host some significant student events for career student organization activities. It will also house our student prom and continue to be home for all things ARVA.
What are your long-term goals for the growth of the school?
Our primary long-term goal is to focus on student academics. We plan to build out some hybrid opportunities for our students to begin to experience a combination of in-person and virtual instruction. The ARVA Education Hub will be critical in creating this new and innovative experience, in addition to helping us continue to improve our career readiness reach. We will begin to make plans to move into fundraising for Phase II of the ARVA Education Hub, which will incorporate industry partnerships on the top floor for hands-on training for ARVA and other area students, and hopefully some adult ed career training opportunities.
Are certain students more suited to a virtual school than others? How?
The characteristics that allow a student to succeed in a traditional school setting also help virtual students. Self-motivation and determination are always a plus. However, virtual schooling tends to fit students who need a schooling experience that’s different from the traditional model. Many students find the virtual environment an opportunity for success, whether it is a variety of schedules, an opportunity for greater parent involvement, athletes in training, medical needs, etc.
What challenges are you facing in terms of broadband access?
Internet access is always a challenge for our more rural students and our low-income population. Sixty-nine percent of our student body is identified as low-income, so even where broadband exists, the resources to secure it aren’t always readily available. We run a hot-spot program for our homeless and low-income families to try to assist with this gap. Additionally, the ARVA Education Hub is a location for our central Arkansas students to come and work if they experience a gap in internet access.
How have the students changed since the pandemic?
Students not only have some ongoing learning gaps, but many of our students have experienced the loss of a parent or a significant loss in income for some time. These pieces have an impact on students in the classroom as well as in everyday life. We’ve worked with organizations like the Utah-based Cook Center to provide training and social and emotional support for our students and their parents/caregivers through programs that support mental health and enhance vital human connections.
Did Arkansas Virtual Academy see the same drop-off in test scores that the public schools did as a result of the pandemic?
We saw a drop mainly in our elementary school. The elementary school doubled in size during the pandemic. Today, we continue to work with students whose first schooling experiences were during the pandemic. Academically, we are working diligently to provide individualized and extensive support for skill remediation for each student to improve their overall academic success. However, the consistency of schooling experience was a plus for us. The ability to school virtually allowed students to continue learning during the pandemic and experience fewer schooling gaps when they or their families were affected by it.