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Virtual students connect in person

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Pecos Connections Academy students and three teachers from Roswell gather on the steps of the Chaves County Courthouse after their first social event of the year on Aug. 23. (Alison Penn Photo)

Clarification: An Associated Press article quoted in the Sept. 3 Daily Record story “Virtual students connect in person” stated that “In December 2017, the Public Education Committee voted not to renew New Mexico Connections Academy’s charter following a study that found the school had misspent funds and was failing students. However, the (Las Cruces) Sun-News reports that NMCA board President Mark Boitano said the school appealed the PEC’s decision and a district judge ruled in favor of the school.” The AP story was revised to include an emailed statement from Boitano, which reads: “New Mexico Connections Academy is part of the Public Education Department audit each year, conducted by an Independent Auditor, and there have never been any reports of mismanaged funds since the school’s inception.”

Over 60 Pecos Connections Academy (PCA) students, along with their families, recently kicked off the school year with their first social event.

PCA is an online public school authorized through the Carlsbad Municipal Schools (CMS) and serves around 1,000 students all over the state. The school has been open since 2016 and has been adding a grade level annually to eventually serve students through 12th grade.

Principal Jed Duggan said there are 60 PCA students in Roswell, 69 students residing in Chaves County outside Roswell, and three PCA teachers living in Roswell.

On the afternoon of Aug. 23, attendees of the online public school — from kindergarten through 11th grade — filed through the lines at Sippy & Opal’s for ice cream and then gathered on the lawn of the Chaves County Courthouse.

After meeting their classmates, students socialized and played tag, while families and local teachers Ashely Owen, Angie Price and Shelby Luck also connected.

During the school year, PCA offers these socials monthly in each region and statewide. Owen oversaw the gathering and said it was a “huge turnout” with students attending from Artesia, Dexter, Hagerman and surrounding areas.

Kim Spear said both of her sons Jacob and Caleb Spear, who are in 11th and ninth grades, respectively, at PCA, started with New Mexico Connections Academy and later moved over to PCA. She said her sons’ academic progress was a “night and day difference” after moving from public to virtual school.

Both Jacob and Caleb Spear show cattle locally, as well as nationally, and the school’s flexibility helps them follow their passions while receiving an education.

“The great thing is as long as you have internet, you’ve got school,” Jacob Spear said. “So if you work ahead and you still have time to make a class online, you go do it and don’t have to worry about it.”

Caleb Spear said spending time with his family and helping with the family business was made possible while working at his own pace at PCA.

“I like this school because it gives me a lot more free time and I still get the education that I need to go to college …” Caleb Spear said, and explained he plans on attending New Mexico State University to get his degree in agriculture business.

Owen said she heard about the school through the Spear family. She has been teaching at PCA for three years and is teaching Algebra I and Geometry this year.

“I love teaching math and impacting students, and not only am I impacting students in Roswell, but also across the entire state of New Mexico …” Owen said.

Owen added that the school offers a safe environment, provides less distractions by offering live lessons — and one of her favorite attributes is that all of the lessons are recorded, which allows students to pause, play and watch them as many times as they need.

Price, a PCA second grade teacher, said the school’s first-day enrollment on Aug. 12 was 927 students and as of Aug. 22, the number had grown to 1,059 students, even after some withdrawals.

The school’s website (connectionsacademy.com/pecos-virtual-school) stated their enrollment cap of 2,000 students had not been met as of Monday.

“We offer everything that they can have in the public school system, but they have the comfort and the safety from doing it in their own home …” Price said.

As a teacher and as a parent, Price said she “highly” recommends PCA since parents have the opportunity to be more involved with their children’s education and see how the school is academically challenging. Her own daughter Aubrey had enrolled at PCA to pursue competitive dance and is in seventh grade.

Luck teaches seventh and eighth-grade math and said PCA is a positive environment for students who may struggle with the social aspect of public school, since virtual school removes that pressure. Students are encouraged, Luck said, to participate in a social outlet like 4-H, dance, gymnastics or sports.

According to an Associated Press report last week, in 2018 the CMS School Board “voted to launch an investigation against Pecos Connections Academy, citing allegations the school was not meeting student and personnel needs.”

Duggan said a legislative committee for virtual schools “looked into the allegations, but confirmed the school was in compliance,” according to the AP report.

The same AP report noted that in December 2017, the Public Education Committee voted “not to renew New Mexico Connections Academy’s charter following a study that found the school had misspent funds and was failing students.”

The Las Cruces Sun-News reported, however, “that NMCA board President Mark Boitano said the school appealed the PEC’s decision and a district judge ruled in favor of the school,” according to the AP report.

Special projects reporter Alison Penn can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or at reporter04@rdrnews.com.