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Local family finds 'pot of gold' option in virtual school





Darren and Shandell Timken weren't looking for an alternative to the local school system when they enrolled their daughter Jassandra in virtual school.

It was simply a matter of Jassandra's health.

They didn't do it "because we're better teachers ... we did it because we had no choice," Darren said.

Diagnosed with juvenile idiopathic arthritis when she was 2, at one point she was able to go to school for only about nine hours a week, he said.

"The doctors were pressing us to look at other options," Shandell said.

Shandell had been working as a para-professional for the Hays USD 489 district, but cut back to substituting because she was spending so many days at home with Jassandra.

Since traditional school wasn't working, home schooling seemed their only option, until Shandell saw something about virtual schools on the Kansas Department of Education website.

"I'd never heard of virtual schools before," she said. "I didn't know anything about them, so I checked into them."

Now a sophomore, Jassandra enrolled in Elkhart Cyber School five years ago when she was a fifth grader. The school became Kansas Connections Academy three years ago.

It was a good fit since she works at her own pace from home.

Jassandra's brother Ryne, now a senior, enrolled the following year.

There is some flexibility, but students still have to meet state requirements for attendance and class time, said Shandell, who serves as their learning coach providing support.

"Virtual school does require a lot of parents' time," Darren said. "It's a commitment for the parents."

Students have to "attend" live lessons that are set for a certain time, he said.

"The live lessons (are) where teachers demonstrate what's going on in the classroom for that (concept)," Jassandra said. "You can actually talk to your classmates, know their names, and Facebook them. We have field trips, and meet them face to face."

Socializing isn't a problem. Jassandra and Ryne have maintained ties with their former classmates and go to local events.

"It's not like they are locked in a bubble," Darren said.

"They have teachers," Shandell said. "If they have a problem, they email, they call. Their teachers are quick to respond. The teachers take time to know each child."

KCA teacher Rebecca Hayworth, who teaches second and third grade students, agrees.

"I really get to know the kids and the whole family," she said.

Hayworth said she talks to students' parents about twice a month during the school year.

"I talk to teachers daily during the school year through email, live lessons, (and) a call once a month," Ryne said.

The school offers a number of electives. This year he's taking a class to learn about personal finance, web designing and art history.

Ryne has a lighter load this year "because we piled him up in other years," Shandell said.

Jassandra, who enjoys writing and has had some things published, will be in an honors English class this year along with her other classes.

"We are a public school, and have the same accountability standards," Hayworth said.

It's been a good option for the Timken family.

"It's one of those pot of gold (things)," Darren said. "It starts out with a bad situation, and we didn't know where to turn.

"You end up going, wow, it's wonderful."