LAKELAND — Noely Serrano gave herself a homework assignment while in 10th grade.
She and her twin sister, Lilly, had decided that they wanted to leave their traditional high school and attend Digital Academy of Florida, a virtual school enrolling students from throughout the state.
Noely, now 18, said her parents required considerable persuasion. And so she deployed a tactic appropriate for a girl hoping to attend an online school: She created a PowerPoint presentation.
What was the content?
“There was something about why we should be able to (switch) and what we would do in return,” she said, “like we would help out more with the chores and do all these things.”
Though a combination of the slideshow and her parents’ own research in Digital Academy of Florida, the fraternal twins gained permission to enroll halfway through their sophomore years.
On Thursday, Noel and Lilly graduated in the top five among 390 seniors as the school held its commencement ceremony at the RP Funding Center in Lakeland. They were part of the second graduating class for the academy, which opened in 2019.
The graduation ceremony presented the first personal encounters for the sisters with fellow students they have only known as faces and names on computer screens.
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“I'm a bit nervous, but I'm actually excited to meet everyone because then I can get to interact with them,” Noely said a day before the graduation, as Lilly concurred.
State Rep. Jennifer Canady, R-Lakeland, spoke at Thursday’s graduation event.
Digital Academy of Florida is officially a program of Hendry County District Schools, though its enrollment of about 6,400 students in kindergarten though 12th grade draws from the entire state, said Director of Schools Laura Downes. The academy is operated by Stride Inc, formerly known as K12 Inc., a for-profit and publicly traded company founded in 2000 by former banker Ronald J. Packard.
From seventh grade up, students choose one of six career pathways: business management and analysis, digital design, computer systems and informational technology, web development, medical laboratory assisting/phlebotomy and hospitality and tourism. Many students graduate with industry certifications that can make it easier to enter the workforce, the school said in a news release.
The Serrano sisters said they opted for the business management and analysis program and earned certifications in QuickBooks, an accounting software package, and Entrepreneurship and Small Business.
Of this year’s 390 graduates, 236 plan to continue their educations, 143 plan to join the workforce and 11 are entering military, Digital Academy of Florida said in the news release.
The school presents course material overseen by teachers through online sessions called "Class Connects." Students follow the calendar of Hendry County District Schools and are expected to spend four to seven hours on schoolwork per academic day, though the academy’s overview notes that “academic progress can also be achieved during the weekends or other days when school is not scheduled to be in session.”
For elementary school students, the academy expects a parent or designated adult to serve as the child’s learning coach, working with an online teacher to record participation, monitor mastery of lessons and review student work.
“Just like in traditional schools, we want to partner with families and help the kids be successful,” Downes said. “And we’re very lucky that we have a lot of very engaged and supportive families who are wonderful at helping support their children, regardless of what grade levels they are in.”
Downes said that “a sizable portion” of the academy’s students have disabilities.
High school students must attend live Class Connect sessions with their teachers, in which they can engage online with classmates. Teachers may also offer support or small group sessions. The Serrano sisters said they typically had three online classes a day.
Students in upper grades devote six hours a week to each course, the school said. All students must comply with all Florida-mandated testing requirements to graduate.
Digital Academy organizes occasional outings and field trips, a chance for students to connect in person. Because the COVID-19 pandemic hit the year after the school opened, most of those so far have been virtual experiences, Downes said. A directory allows students and families to schedule their own gatherings, she said.
The program is not to be confused with Polk Virtual School, an online K-through-12 program overseen by Polk County Public Schools. Other districts also offer virtual public schools for students living in their counties.
Digital Academy is a public school, and families pay no tuition.
Unhappy at traditional school
Noely and Lilly Serrano, who moved to Lakeland about five years ago, said they were frustrated with their experience at a conventional high school.
“It was mainly the way the teachers were teaching,” Noely said. “It felt as if we weren't being given the attention.”
Lilly added: “And it didn't seem like they were passionate about their job.”
The twins said that discipline problems also disrupted their classes.
“That was a big thing,” Noely said. “There were always fights — constantly.”
The pandemic struck when the sisters were in ninth grade. While many students struggled to adjust to remote learning, Noely and Lilly said they thrived during the period when they did classwork from home. Both have reserved personalities and said they felt more comfortable speaking up in online sessions than they did in a physical classroom.
“I was able to learn a lot more and feel more confident about what I was learning,” Lilly said.
“Actually, I felt like I became a bit more social,” Noely added. “Usually, I was a bit more shy around people, which is really funny. I was always just naturally shy or wouldn't talk to people, sometimes, but I feel like it helped me communicate a bit more.”
During their sophomore year, the girls began to notice TV commercials for Digital Academy of Florida. The concept of attending school virtually from home immediately appealed to them, sparking Noely’s PowerPoint pitch to her parents, Noel and Lydia Serrano.
The sisters said their academic records have improved since they switched to the virtual school.
“I already had good grades in person, but I feel like I improved a lot more,” Noely said. “I was able to ask questions, because I felt more confident. I participated more.”
Lilly said that she received some B's and an occasional C while attending a traditional school. She said she has earned all A's since enrolling at Digital Academy.
The twins weren’t certain of their final grade-point averages but said that they were above 4.0.
Parents are satisfied
The sisters said their parents have seen them display their ability to handle the responsibility of being in a less structured school environment.
“I noticed how much more trust they have in us,” Noely said. “Our dad would always say, ‘Oh, I'm so proud of you,’ like, especially when he sees our grades. I think he's also happy with the switch.”
Digital Academy of Florida has no sports teams (though the students are known as the Panthers), an absence the sisters said they didn’t miss. The school organizes virtual events, such as cookoffs and spelling bees, and offers more than 25 clubs for high schoolers, among them a theater club and an environmental and marine club. Noely said she joined a computer coding club.
The Serrano sisters said the virtual program is best suited for certain types of students.
“I think it helps with people who like to do things on their own, and they're OK with not socializing in person as often,” Lilly said. “But of course, sometimes the K12 staff, they would have meetings where students could meet each other and they could just interact. But other than that, I feel like it's not super suitable for someone who likes to meet in person all the time.”
Despite their high academic standing, the Serrano twins do not plan to go directly to college. Both said they would be seeking jobs that could provide experience toward their goal of eventually owning a bakery or café with their older sister, Ashley.
The sisters were born in the United States to parents of Mexican and Puerto Rican heritage. They aspire to operate an eatery that would serve Latin-inflected desserts, along with sourdough bread, Noely’s favorite item to prepare.
Having pledged to take on increased chores in the PowerPoint presentation that convinced their parents to let them enroll in Digital Academy of Florida, have the sisters followed through on that commitment?
“Yes, yes,” Noely said with a laugh, adding, “Sometimes I forget.”
This article originally appeared on The Ledger: Lakeland twins graduate in top 5 after switching to virtual school