Virtual high schools are growing in Utah. Here’s why.

After experimenting with online instruction — during school closures, asynchronous study days, or other variances caused by the COVID-19 pandemic — many children have rejoiced at the opportunity to learn in traditional classrooms.

But for students at Kings Peak High School, a virtual public school in Bluffdale that opened last fall, online education was the key.

Samantha Filby, a member of Kings Peak’s Class of 2022, has endured numerous surgeries to treat her heart condition. When the pandemic hit in the middle of her sophomore year, it wasn’t safe to go to school in person.

She tried online classes through her frontier school, Copper Hills High, for a year, but “it really wasn’t the best,” Filby said. When she heard that the Jordan School District was starting a school where teachers would teach all online, she jumped at the chance to try it.

Filby was a good student at Copper Hills, she said, but became an exceptional student at Kings Peak. She earned a 4.0 GPA in her two semesters, was named president of the school chapter of the National Honors Society, and received a scholarship to college.

“I feel like I’ve excelled as a person. Like I’ve grown up a bit. I’ve been given responsibilities,” Filby said. “…I’ve learned a lot about myself, like I can do a lot more now than before.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students at Kings Peak High School participate in introductory practice at the Bluffdale Virtual Learning School on Thursday, June 2, 2022.

Filby is one of many Utah students who have chosen to continue their education online following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, principal Ammon Weimers doesn’t want parents to see Kings Peak as an ‘alternative school’.

“People have the wrong idea that it could be easier or less strict [at Kings Peak] than other schools, and that’s one thing that people notice right away – that they’re learning the same thing they’re learning in a building. It’s only done virtually,” said Weimers.

Kings Peak has enrolled 250 full-time students this year – meaning they’re taking at least four courses – and around 2,000 part-time students, he said. Consideration is already being given to hiring additional teachers for next year after the school has reached capacity in the spring semester.

connection with teachers

For Kings Peak teacher Kelli Malmberg, one of the most surprising things about the past school year was how easy it was for her to connect personally with her students.

Malmberg fights back tears as she talks about working to the last minute with a student who only had a few assignments to complete to graduate. Malmberg stayed with the student and her mother until 2:30 a.m. the night before graduation, cheering her towards the finish line.

Some of the connections she’s made with students online have been deeper than any she’s made in person, Malmberg said. The one-on-one conversations Malmberg had with her students and the responsibility they had to take on in their own learning made the relationships more personal, she said.

New graduate Ryan Fleck said the “super friendly and super accommodating” teachers he learned from were the highlight of his time at Kings Peak. Getting help with a task was as easy as sending an email, Filby said.

Students at Kings Peak complete assignments organized into modules using academic software called Canvas. Teachers provide two one-hour Zoom lectures for each class each week, but students are not required to attend in real time.

That flexibility is crucial for students who are working to support their parents or raising a child of their own, said Language Arts teacher Derick Varn. And for others, working on their own schedule just works better.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students at Kings Peak High School move their tassels at the end of introductory practice at the Virtual Learning School in Bluffdale on Thursday, June 2, 2022. From left are Tessa Marty, Taylor DiAntonio and Whitney Face .

The online format also gives teachers time to prepare lessons ahead of time and provides educators with useful data to use in tailoring lessons to students, Varn said.

Teachers can use the technology to see if a student is taking longer than usual with an assignment, what time of the week they complete their homework, and how long it is taking to complete a test.

This data is especially valuable for teachers as they work with students with difficulties or students with special needs, Varn said, and online instruction allows educators to modify instruction for those students without notifying their classmates.

The virtual curriculum also encourages teacher and student autonomy, Varn said. Teachers “have to be much more active in visiting” because their students aren’t in their immediate vicinity every day. And the students know that their homework for the week is due at 6:00 p.m. on Friday, and it’s up to them to finish it and ask for help by then.

Completing her senior year at Kings Peak allowed Abby Zaelit to keep a day job. But she admits that finding the motivation to complete tasks without the traditional classroom environment was sometimes difficult.

“They couldn’t bear to sit in a classroom”

As of June 2, 48 students made up the first senior class at Kings Peak High School, and Weimers expects that number to increase in the years to come.

Jordan’s Virtual Learning Academy hosts students throughout K-12 across its three schools – Rocky Peak Elementary, Kelsey Peak Middle and Kings Peak High. Any student living in Utah can take a class at Kings Peak.

Before the three-school virtual academy was launched in 2021, the Jordan School District had offered an online learning program for years. Enrollment in the program has grown about 20% year over year for the past five years, Weimers said, and he expects the Virtual Learning Academy to continue growing at a similar pace.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kings Peak High School student Dezirae Hernandez is preparing to go to school on Thursday, May 2nd.

Enrollment at the virtual public charter Mountain Heights Academy, which opened in 2009, gradually increased ahead of the 2019-20 school year when enrollment reached 800 students, Principal DeLaina Tonks said. When the pandemic hit, the school population for the 2020-21 school year exploded to over 1,300 students – in grades seven through 12.

Those numbers are down to 971 for the 2021-22 school year, but enrollment was still higher than before the pandemic. Tonks said more than 1,000 students have enrolled for the next year.

Many of the students Tonks met at the school’s orientation last year were trying to go back to a regular school, but “they couldn’t face being in a classroom all day,” Tonks said. Others decided to split their time between their frontier school and Mountain Heights.

The Utah Legislature updated the statewide online education program during the 2022 session to allow students to take online school concurrent enrollment courses that were previously only offered to students who had enrolled full-time in an online school. Virtual high schools are growing in Utah. Here’s why.

Joel McCord

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