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Despite Pandemic Struggles, Cincinnati Digital Academy Could Become Bigger Part of CPS' Future

online learning

The COVID-19 pandemic caused complete shifts in many of our daily schedules, including students across Cincinnati Public Schools. Many students transitioned to Cincinnati Digital Academy as a result, and now the district is looking to make the school a bigger part of its future.

Eight years ago, Cincinnati Digital Academy was founded for students to be able to structure their classes and work in a suitable environment for them, mostly kids who were being homeschooled, dealing with health conditions, or because traditional classrooms didn't work for them. Last March, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine ordered schools to close to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Students then transitioned to remote learning within Cincinnati Public Schools for the rest of spring. For the fall semester, the only remote option for many students was CDA.

Denianne Gardner is the parent of a fifth grader at Dater Montessori. When her child transitioned to the academy, she says it was very overwhelmed by the influx of transferring students.

"They had 300 students prior to all of this and 10 teachers, but by the time we enrolled, they were up to 1,500 students," Gardner said.

She says the transition for her child wasn't necessarily difficult learning-wise, but the lack of having other students around was challenging.

"It's a very lonely experience," Gardner said. "Even to get on Zoom calls periodically is fine, but they're really kind of more annoying than anything because you don't really get to connect with the other kids. It's just that comedy of errors that a kid's Zoom call is."

Parents had similar experiences to Gardner during the pandemic, but other parents within the district had been taking advantage of CDA long before COVID-19. Jamie Ferguson's kids have been attending the online school for years now. He says the nontraditional structure works for them, mainly being able to do the work at their own pace. However, he says the school is not meant for every child and doesn't recommend children attend CDA during most of their elementary years.

"If you go in there as a parent coming from a standard traditional school and think that, 'Oh, it's going to work, plug my kid into a computer and let them do it,' it isn't necessarily going to work that way," Ferguson said.

Gardner noted that while the content provided by the school is adequate, it's not always engaging. She also noted that some of the content seems to be very dated.

"If you were to watch the social studies videos, they look like a VHS converted from a 1980s Discovery Channel," Gardner said. "They're not all like that, but they're very dated. I could swear that I saw some of those when I was in school."

Despite some cons, she did note the pros of attending the school, most notably the flexibility of completing assignments. She says working with her daughter was beneficial to them both, saying she was learning as much as her child.

"Having your kid watch you go through the learning process is kind of valuable in that you have to go back and you have to figure out something you don't understand and you fail and you try again," Gardner said. "You're not this omniscient person who knows everything and there's just something valuable in letting your kid see that part of you."

The district is looking to invest more in CDA going forward. Some investments have already started, most notably the increase in staff to handle the massive influx in students. Monisha House is the district director of school leadership. She says CPS wants to improve some academic structures, including adding more courses. It also could give CPS students access to classes that may not be at their respective school.

"The future is kind of hard to predict because I wouldn't have predicted where we are now, but I can say that reimagining our future, our future is bright," House said.

Despite declining enrollment throughout the district, CDA is projected to have at least four times the enrollment next year compared to October 2019.

Cory Sharber attended Murray State University majoring in journalism and political science and comes to Cincinnati Public Radio from NPR Member station WKMS.