Santiam Academy prospers in online realm

By Sarah Brown
Lebanon Local
The Lebanon Community School District has a new school no one has to leave their house to attend.
Officially formed this year, the online Santiam Academy currently serves about 100 K-8 students. And according to principal Susanne Stefani, the format is working, though it doesn’t come without obstacles.
“Some of our curriculum is still sitting on container ships somewhere,” she said. “And cameras – most teachers can tell you that last year they taught to largely black screens because kids hated turning on their cameras, which made teaching and learning much harder.”
This year teachers have been encouraging children to take small steps toward keeping their cameras on during live instruction, Stefani said. The results have been positive, and Stefani was “thrilled” when she recently saw a student’s face for the first time.
“That’s qualitative data that tells me that our teachers and instructional assistants have made their virtual classrooms safe places to learn and be seen with each other,” she said. “And that right there is more important for a child’s development than whether her workbook is stuck in a port somewhere.”
After Santiam Academy’s first quarter as an online school, the district has received mostly positive feedback from parents.
In a survey to parents and guardians, a majority expressed positive feedback about the program, but only 47 percent indicated they felt their student was making connections with others in class, and 46 percent indicated they would like to see opportunities for in-person socialization with classmates.
In response, some teachers are opting to keep the Zoom classes on during lunch so students can choose to be present during that time, Stefani said.
Seventy-six percent said the daily workload is “just right.” Stefani said they do not assign homework.
“I feel like students are in school for a full day, and that is their job to be a learner and when that’s over, it’s play time, and family time and kid time,” she said.
One mother told Stefani that for the first time in 12 years she heard her son say he loved school and his teachers, and another appreciated being confident about what her child was learning.
“There is often such a disconnect between what your kids do all day and your awareness of that, as a parent,” Stefani said. “So having that learning go on in your home gives you a sense of awareness and involvement that some really appreciate.”
The Comprehensive Distance Learning format came together in sort of a scrambled fashion last year when COVID-19 forced school closures.
“Many districts treated Comprehensive Distance Learning (CDL) as a temporary Band-Aid that they shut down when we had the green light to return to in-person learning,” Stefani said. “However, (Supt.) Bo Yates understood that for many in our community, this was something they appreciated as an option going forward.
“He saw it as our duty to provide that and to use this moment to be innovative and agile. Instead of all families conforming to our model, we’ll create an ongoing alternative model to support many families. It was a very forward-thinking, service-minded approach, and I wish more districts would make that move.”
It was this approach that enticed Stefani to join the district, and she found that some of her students have come from neighboring districts because of the online format, she said.
She believes families would choose to school their children through Santiam Academy for a variety of reasons. An obvious one involves the pandemic. Stefani noted that some families feel safer learning from home while others appreciate the opportunity to attend school without being forced to wear a mask. In addition to that, some require more flexibility, and others “simply need a different format for their education or well-being,” she said.
Some families found the online format to be a surprising success.
Stefani said,
“One parent wrote recently, ‘My son is no longer sent home with a note about behavior because he fidgets in class. Being online, he can wiggle around as needed and still get his work done.’”
To learn more about Santiam Academy, visit http://santiam-academy.lebanon.k12.or.us/.