TEXARKANA, Texas - While many parents and students flocked to virtual learning platforms with the emergence of COVID-19 during last school year, some families were already ahead of the curve - one of those being the Cruises.
Amberleigh Cruise, a Texarkana student going into her freshman year of high school, is entering her fifth year with the Arkansas Connections Academy.
ARCA, based in Bentonville, is a tuition-free, online public school for grades Kindergarten through 12th grade.
As ARCA's enrollment doubled over the past year due to COVID, Cruise continued the same learning process that her mom and learning coach Melissa has helped guide her through since fifth grade.
"We started this before it became cool, so to speak," Melissa said.
Cruise went to Fairview Elementary School through fourth grade, before her parents started to consider other learning options that would better suit her.
"I saw a commercial on TV for Connections Academy," Melissa said. "I looked into it, and I liked what I saw. We wanted to try something different and see if it was going to work for her. We signed her up that afternoon. That was going into fifth grade, and we've been with Connections ever since."
Melissa said she values the flexibility of the schedule and the constant help that is available from ARCA's state-certified teachers. But the learning platform also benefits Amberleigh due to an anxiety disorder she possesses, known as selective mutism, which is characterized by a child's inability to speak or communicate in select social settings.
"It is something that's not well-known, but this school has helped her with overcoming some of it - not all of it," she said. "Some people might think that her interaction with other students might be a disadvantage to virtual learning, but it really isn't. They have what's called 'live lesson,' and they communicate with the teachers then, as well as other students. They communicate through a chat pod."
Melissa said she sees very few disadvantages for virtual learning when it comes to her daughter's learning experiences.
She sets a schedule that resembles a brick-and-mortar timeline every day, writing it on a dry-erase board for Amberleigh's viewing. She prioritizes discipline and structure when it comes to getting all of her work done.
It's hard to argue the results, as Amberleigh is a straight-A student.
"ARCA has helped me be able to learn and work on assignments at my own pace," Amberleigh said. "I don't have to rush through tough assignments."
"This is a certified public school, just at home," Melissa said. "People think 'oh, she's home-schooled.' Well, homeschooling is different than virtual school. With homeschooling, you get to pick and choose what classes your child takes. But this is still public school, and she still has to do the certified and state tests and everything."
While Cruise makes sure the schedule is set every day, ARCA's teachers are always on stand-by to answer any questions or concerns that may arise about the schoolwork.
"The teachers and the faculty are amazing," Melissa said. "They help out greatly. If I can't explain something, we know who to contact for her to get the information she needs."
Amberleigh plans on continuing the virtual learning process through high school, as it has been a success for her and her family thus far.
"It all just depends on your child. And it depends on if you have the patience to sit with your child and help them learn," Melissa said. "Virtual school is not for everybody, but it works for us."