Think of all the components of a classroom – not just the brick and mortar of a whiteboard and desks, but also the physical instruction. A teacher pointing to a student with their arm raised to answer a question. A nod from the teacher that the student is on track. A teacher going around the room to check on each scholar’s progress with the lesson.
PrepNet Virtual Academy, a National Heritage Academies (NHA) virtual school located in Michigan, is a free public charter school serving students in grades K-12 with an early college program that takes all those pieces and reimagines them to fit into an online learning experience that satisfies the needs of students, teachers, and parents.
Melissa VanKlompenburg is the K-5 principal of PrepNet Virtual Academy, a K-12 online virtual school located in Michigan that opened in 2021.
“I was a skeptic at first because I wasn’t familiar with schooling at home on any level,” said Cierra Wright, a PrepNet Virtual Academy parent. “Once we were kind of forced into it (during the pandemic), I would say I like it better than brick and mortar.”
PrepNet Virtual Academy opened in 2021 to meet the needs of Michigan families who wanted a permanent online learning option for their children. PrepNet Virtual Academy combines the best elements of a K-12 online school with the social interaction of in-person learning that builds community and strengthens connections.
What is Virtual Learning? Making Connections, Creating Community
The notion of virtual learning hasn’t always been a popular one for students, parents, and teachers. However, PrepNet Virtual Academy’s approach is changing the conversation. In fact, some might think that virtual learning is all asynchronous, or independent learning. PrepNet Virtual Academy is not that, with live instruction occurring throughout the day.
Mrs. "VK", as she's known by the students, provides support to teachers and other school staff virtually.
“We’re probably the most opposite of what you could get in a virtual world,” said Melissa VanKlompenburg, K-5 principal, who will celebrate 20 years with NHA in March. “We lived through the pandemic and learned that while students were learning virtually, the more students had time with the teacher, the better they did.
“It can’t be the ‘I’m going to work at my own pace, I’m going to do my own thing,’ and you talk to a teacher or a coach once a day or once a week, which is typically what other virtual schools do.”
That’s one of the reasons Wright enrolled her son, Deontae’, in PrepNet Virtual Academy. Currently a fifth-grader, she shared he was thriving in the K-12 online school environment brought on during the pandemic. She didn’t see the need for him to return to a brick and mortar school if he could get the same quality education online.
In particular, she liked how PrepNet Virtual Academy embeds a character-based approach into everything they do, demonstrated through Moral Focus virtues of integrity, gratitude, and respect, to name a few.
“I think those things go hand-in-hand with academics,” she said. “The idea is to be the best student you can be. Part of that is having a good citizenship and a good rapport with the people in the community you exist in.”
A Supportive Culture with a College-bound Focus
Creating community through connection also takes on a different approach for its certified teachers. In a brick and mortar classroom, students might break into small groups and work independently while the teacher monitors them. In the digital sphere, teachers at PrepNet Virtual Academy use a software program that allows them to monitor student progress throughout the school day by seeing what’s on a student’s screen, along with a series of slides that provide visual cues, and a chat box.
The foundation of virtual learning at PrepNet Virtual Academy is that students and teachers are engaging throughout the school day.
The PrepNet Virtual Academy experience also is heavily focused on support. Wright shared any time she had a question, it was resolved within 24 hours. It all adds up to become a flexible learning environment that leaves scholars ready for college.
“I think sometimes if you’re not familiar with virtual school, you don’t really know,” Wright said. “You’re like ‘Is my child going to be on the computer with nobody? I’ll have to go in there and chime in.’ It’s not like that at all. It’s the exact same, it’s just in the comfort of your home.”
Another popular facet at PrepNet Virtual Academy is accelerated learning options. For example, seventh- and eighth-grade students have the option to earn high school credit while still in middle school. This translates to strong communication skills that come in handy beyond high school.
“They're learning a bunch of really cool skills, which are immediately job-applicable, college-applicable,” Spanish Teacher Carolyn Knutson said. “If you can make a great presentation, that goes a long way at the college level.”
No matter what an individual family’s needs are, PrepNet Virtual Academy offers a unique experience that provides parents and students with the educational choice that fuels student success in life, college, and beyond.
About PrepNet Virtual Academy
PrepNet Virtual Academy is a tuition-free, public charter school in Grand Rapids, Michigan, serving students in kindergarten through 12th grade. It is part of the National Heritage Academies network, which includes 99 tuition-free, public charter schools serving more than 65,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade across nine states. For more information, visit nhaschools.com.