FAIRBORN — As school districts across the country adopted virtual learning in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, Fairborn Digital Academy had a significant head start in the business of remote learning.
A head start of nearly two decades, in fact.
Fairborn Digital Academy (FDA) was founded in 2002 as a dropout prevention and recovery community school, sponsored by Fairborn City Schools. The accountability coaches at FDA conduct their teaching primarily online, and the school has been able to easily make the switch to a fully online environment with the advent of COVID-19. Their success in this aspect may be partially due to their origins: Fairborn Digital Academy’s beginnings were inspired by another great disaster.
“There are a lot of reasons a school may have to move to a digital model,” said Executive Director Erik Tritsch, in an interview Monday. “Our founder, Bob Grimshaw, when he was early in this process, went down and did a lot of relief work for Hurricane Katrina. During that time, if schools in that area had a model like ours, they would have been able to continue some form of education once the major part of the disaster ended, and get back on their feet earlier.”
Though they have since expanded, FDA was created specifically to serve Fairborn students, said Tritsch, a graduate of Fairborn High School himself. The school’s model revolves around its teachers, or “accountability coaches,” who provide highly individualized learning for students who may have struggled in a traditional high school environment. Coaches are assigned to students, instead of teaching a singular course.
“Our staff gets to know our students and their families very well,” Tritsch said. “A lot of times, it’s that personal touch that makes the difference. By getting to know the students, coaches can see what factors are limiting a student’s ability to succeed at the individual level.”
Total enrollment at FDA currently is 175. Typically, enrollment is closer to 220, according to Tritsch, but the school had a decrease in enrollment this year, partially because traditional schools have been able to create remote learning environments on their own.
Learning at FDA has always been primarily done virtually, even prior to the pandemic. During non-COVID times, students did have the opportunity to come into the old Black Lane Elementary School building, where FDA is located, for tutoring. The advent of the pandemic doesn’t mean, however, that students are disconnected from their teachers.
“The accountability coach does everything you can think of when you think of the word ‘coach,’” Tritsch said. “Teach, motivate, communicate.”
Most districts across the country had less than six months to figure out virtual learning as the country locked down for the coronavirus pandemic. Despite the advances in digital learning that have happened over the past few years, there are still pitfalls that many districts are running into, according to Tritsch.
“It took a long time [for us] to build a model that works,” he said. “It didn’t just happen overnight. During that process, we did a lot of things that I’m seeing the other districts try, and they’re coming up with some of the same issues that we had. You can’t just sit a kid in front of a computer and expect them to learn.”
Part of that difference is allowing broader communication between staff and students, according to principal Jessica Biggers.
“We worked really hard pre-COVID to make sure that all our staff members were in different rooms throughout the week, so that all the kids get the opportunity to get to know the staff as a whole,” she said.
The school draws parallels with the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child,” as its model allows students to ask for help from different staff members. If they don’t feel comfortable going to a particular coach, or if another staff member has a different area of expertise, the student can go to different coaches for help.
“It’s a little bit different,” Biggers said, now that COVID has necessitated an entirely remote curriculum.
Tutors in different subject areas are available to kids throughout the day, and communication has, by necessity, increased on the part of both the coaches and students.
“We’re working with the kids to teach them how to reach out, be proactive and advocate for themselves, but we facilitate setting up sessions with the different tutors, so that they have access to everyone on staff,” Biggers continued.
Students also have the opportunity via Zoom for one-on-one tutoring with staff. Students who take advantage of this, Tritsch said, are seeing “tremendous success.”
Upon graduation, FDA students pursue a broad spectrum of post-graduation paths. An increasing number are going to community college after getting their diploma, some go to a trade school or the Greene County Career Center, and others finish their diploma to obtain a managerial position in a place they are already working.
Despite their current success, there are challenges arising in the school’s future. FDA is sponsored by, but not a part of Fairborn City Schools. However, 2021 is the last year of FCS sponsorship, and the school will be sponsored by St. Aloysius Orphanage beginning next year.
Sponsors of schools like FDA launch new charter schools and provide school oversight and technical assistance, according to the Ohio Department of Education. The ODE evaluates the agencies annually on three things: the academic performance of their schools, compliance with laws, and adherence to best practices. St. Aloysius achieved a rating of Exemplary in 2019, compared to an Inadequate rating for FCS. 2020 data for the same rating was incomplete or not available, as many evaluations were not recorded due to the pandemic.
Additionally, the former Black Lane Elementary School, where FDA is located, is due for demolition in accordance with the district’s restructuring plan. FDA is currently looking for a new building that will allow them to operate under a same or similar model.
Reach London Bishop at 937-502-4532 or follow @LBishopFDH on Twitter.