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An Interview with Dr. Rouel Belleza
How one school district is getting high marks with eLearning

By Joe Cozart / October 2014

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Cherokee County is a suburban school district northwest of Atlanta, GA. In the last several years, the district has seen an explosion of interest in online learning. In response to this, Dr. Rouel Belleza, Administrator on Special Assignment in Virtual/Online Learning, was tasked with helping to set up an online school in Cherokee County. The district is attempting to leverage digital resources in a way that can enable growth of blended learning district wide as well. Currently, the county has two types of online options. In their direct online courses, students take an online course in a computer lab with a teacher in the room to provide assistance. The second option is called a virtual online course; in this setup, the student takes the course completely offsite after completing an orientation and application process.

Cherokee County's online program is an excellent example of a quality online program based on the International Association for K-12 Online Learning's (iNACOL) National Standards for Quality Online Programs. These standards call for online programs to focus on equity and access to quality online options for all students. The curriculum in courses should have oversight in place to ensure all appropriate standards are taught. Students in online programs need detailed feedback on their performance from teachers who receive ongoing support specific to the unique challenges of teaching online. The ultimate focus of online schools, like all schools, must ultimately be tied back to student achievement and preparation for the future goals of the students. The interview that follows helps share the vision Dr. Belleza and the Cherokee County School District have for online learning, which is an excellent example of quality based on the iNACOL standards. This vision can inform other districts looking to grow online and blended learning programs.

Joe Cozart: How is your district using online learning?

Rouel Belleza: Through the vision of our Superintendent, Dr. Frank Petruzielo, the Cherokee County School District (CCSD) continually seeks to provide and increase educational opportunities to meet individual student needs; the addition of virtual and digital learning has certainly been a component of that expansion.

Recognizing the evolution, collaboration potential, and further integration of technology with expanding curriculum, Dr. Petruzielo created an administrative assignment within the educational programs division of the Curriculum Department to oversee and expand virtual and digital learning opportunities for students in Cherokee County. The primary provider for all of our middle and high school students' needs as they relate to virtual/online learning has come through an already established partnership with the Georgia Virtual School (GAVS). Although CCSD has worked diligently to provide a vast array of course offerings in both subject area and level of rigor, CCSD recognized that the breadth of virtual course offerings through GAVS is a complimentary supplement for students interested in online courses.

JC: Your district's C3Academy offers credit recovery, teacher-led courses, and a clearinghouse of online providers. Tell us what else the C3Academy does.

RB: The creation of the C3Academy—also part of the Superintendent's initiative to address virtual and digital learning—was developed to further support students, families, and faculty. The C3Academy has given CCSD the opportunity to centralize its approach to providing students and families with information regarding online and digital opportunities. Through its website, directly linked within the county website, information about virtual and digital learning along with updates and announcements are provided. Additionally, the C3Academy has utilized email blasts and newsletter announcements. The C3Academy also provided several workshops for its building counselors and administrators to familiarize them with the process of educating students and families about the characteristics of online learners, and the procedures for enrollment into classes through GAVS.

JC: What are the goals of the C3Academy?

RB: Establishing a countywide presence for overseeing virtual and digital learning, monitoring trends within technology and curriculum, collaborating directly with each middle and high school, further educating the community at large, as well as exploring future initiatives related to virtual and digital education within CCSD are key targets for the C3Academy. Families and students are also able to speak directly with the Administrator on Special Assignment for Virtual and Digital Learning at the county office through the C3Academy.

JC: How do the individual schools in the county coordinate with the C3Academy?

RB: From the individual building level, the Counseling Department manages the verification and registration of all virtual courses through GAVS. The personnel in student services is familiar with their students' academic requirements and strengths, making them best suited for assisting students through the enrollment process of online courses. Counselors work to educate students and families of the benefits available through online learning while also helping them to best assess each student's strengths and areas of need. Families and students may be unfamiliar with the demands of online learning and the differences in approach and workflow from a brick-and-mortar platform to a purely virtual platform. Counselors also go over a study assessment to further clarify the requirements of technology, organization, motivation, and communication.

JC: What does it take for a student to be successful in an online course?

RB: For any student seeking to take an online course, it is important that they fully understand how best to be successful. The C3Academy and the building counselors spend time addressing common mistakes students experience taking online courses (lack of organization, delayed communication, missed deadlines, self-discipline…) with the goal of establishing a concrete and strategic approach for a successful online experience. The C3Academy website also hosts a number of resources for students and families to better understand online learning.

Students have the opportunity to incorporate online courses within their traditional school day since the student funding formula, as it relates to virtual courses, was changed by 2012 legislation. For a number of our students who are involved in athletics or extra-curriculars that require flexibility within scheduling (throughout the day or even the year), online courses meet their needs in a unique way. As part of the Superintendent's vision, virtual learning opportunities should provide flexibility in learning, curriculum, and experiences to meet the individual needs of our students.

JC: What are the next steps for your district with online learning?

RB: The challenge to prepare CCSD students for a future of technology, learning, and higher-order thinking skills continues. Virtual and digital learning are models that support this endeavor. However, the reality exists that some students may not care to experience a fully virtual course or find success in such an environment. In a continued effort to support students who may not choose a virtual or digital course, CCSD is further promoting the integration of technology and curriculum through blended learning opportunities. The C3Academy is providing professional development workshops for middle and high school teachers to explore and examine digital curriculum with the goal of expanding blended learning within their classroom. Through resources from Georgia Virtual Learning and other digital providers, teachers are given examples and the time to explore materials individually and collaboratively within subject areas or grade levels. The ability and time to examine course materials is vital for teachers as they look for opportunities to incorporate outside resources into their current arsenal.

CCSD recognizes there is much to do in the area of virtual, digital, and blended learning. Exploring the best options available for our students continues to be a top priority as the learning environment expands.

About the Author

Joe Cozart serves as the Associate Director of Strategic Planning for Georgia Virtual School, which is a program of the Georgia Department of Education. In this role, he oversees data, policy, research, analytics, strategic planning, and accreditation. Dr. Cozart has been with the school since 2005 in a variety of roles including teaching, teacher training, teacher supervision, course creation, and administration.

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