Online school helps figure skater balance studies, practice

When Courtney Phillips attended Claremont’s Chaparral Elementary School, each day started at 5:30 a.m., when the young figure skater glided onto the ice for practice. After that, it was off to a full day at school before she returned to the rink for more skating in the afternoon.

Now a ninth-grader, Courtney practices 20 hours a week, and has aspirations of qualifying for the Winter Olympics in 2022. The Claremont resident has been skating for about six years, and recently placed second in a regional United States Figure Skating competition that included 56 competitors. She will compete this week at the sectional competition in Spokane, Washington.

Figure skating “really challenges me, and I like to be challenged,” Courtney said. “And, I feel like I can really express myself alone on the ice.”

But in previous years, the rigid practice schedule and daily demands of a typical school day proved stressful. Courtney was balancing her ever-more-challenging schoolwork with the time consuming demands of competitive skating. She would often travel to different ice rinks around Southern California to meet with coaches on school days. It was exhausting. Clearly, the Phillips’ needed a different plan.

The solution was to opt out of traditional public school, and enroll at California Connections Academy. The free, online public school turned out to be perfectly suited to Courtney’s demanding skating schedule. It is staffed with state-credentialed teachers, opened its virtual doors in 2004, and currently serves 5,700 students statewide.

Like traditional brick-and-mortar schools, CCA offers advanced placement classes, languages, music and art. Courtney learns material, takes tests and submits presentations online, allowing her to learn independently, and at her own pace.

For Courtney, it’s been a great fit. She can do a week’s worth of work ahead of time, and have a free week when she knows she’ll be particularly busy with figure skating. She can also get her homework done while traveling to competitions.

“It’s really independent. You sort of teach yourself,” she said.

Courtney’s experience has been that the rigors of the online education are just as demanding—maybe even more so—than traditional school. “You have to be disciplined,” she said.

Courtney’s mother, Janet, was initially concerned about how much teaching work she’d have to do as a parent of an online-schooled child. The truth is though, both approaches are similar in this regard. And while online high school education is definitely better suited for naturally independent learners, the students at CCA aren’t unsupervised. “They [CCA] do have teachers and counselors available by phone,” she said.

Courtney said she doesn’t miss the social aspects of traditional school. Most of her skating friends from nearby areas, like Upland and Rancho Cucamonga, are also enrolled at CCA, and she sees them at practice.

Heather Tamayo, the middle school principal for the Southern California branch of CCA, says the online school serves kids “from every walk of life.”

“We have kids who have been bullied, and kids in sixth or seventh grade who are ready for college-level math,” Ms. Tamayo explained. CCA also has accommodations and individualized education plans for English-learners and students with disabilities. “We truly run the gamut,” said Ms. Tamayo.

Many students go on to attend four-year universities, serve in the military or attend vocational schools. Ms. Tamayo is responsible for the same types of tasks a traditional principal performs: monitoring students’ grades, supporting staff members, looking at lesson plans and upholding academic standards.

While the online school offers extracurricular activities and events, including a robotics club, theater club, an in-person prom and graduation ceremony, it can’t replicate everything about traditional schools. For example, there are no sports, per California Interscholastic Federation rules.

Though her experience isn’t traditional, Courtney said she’s found a good, flexible balance of school and skating, which is already coming in handy.

“Skating’s getting harder, so I have to train more,” she said.

—Kellen Browning


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