Source: Sherman Publications

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Virtual academy leases second downtown bldg.

by Trevor Keiser

January 23, 2013

The Oxford Virtual Academy (OVA) is expanding, not just in the number of students it serves, but in the actual physical space it occupies.

OVA is in the process of moving some of its operations into 5 S. Washington St., which formerly housed the ArtCapsule.

Oxford Community Schools currently leases space at 3. S. Washington St. for OVA, but according to an e-mail from Communications Coordinator Linda Lewis and OVA's Director Andrew Hulbert, that space "does not accommodate the entire OVA staff, nor does it provide a private setting for new student enrollments, special education services, student counseling and family meetings."

They also said the district looked during the summer at other properties in the area to accommodate OVA, but was "unsuccessful in finding an affordable property," ready to open in the fall for the 2012-13 academic year.

So, when they were approached by property owner Brett Knapp to lease the space he owns next door at 5 S. Washington, they found it to be "an attractive option."

"I think it's essential that we make that move, so the entire administrative team for the virtual academy and the expanded learning space are all in the same area (because) right now we're split," Hulbert told this reporter. "Everything that used to be done at the central office building (10 N. Washington St.) where we had to find space to accommodate these families, now has a home to go to."

Hulbert will move his office to 5 S. Washington along with a counselor, registrar, assistant registrar, computer technician and special education teacher.

The lease agreement is for three years and rent is $1,800 per month. Lewis and Hulbert said there was a "minimal build-out" of the space which cost $19,000, but the districts enrollment growth, largely attributed to OVA, is what makes these expenses "viable." OVA currently has more than 800 students enrolled.

"We've seen such a growth and the number of students utilizing the lab is more than we expected, which is great," Hulbert added. "There are so many kids coming to the lab that we've really outgrown the space before we've really even moved in."

More growth is expected.

"The word of mouth as far as the virtual academy and the opportunities that it offers are going to be so large we're going to see growth exponentially even next year," Hulbert said.

Some folks may ask if virtual education denotes learning that is done via the internet, why is it necessary for Oxford Schools to have two physical locations to house its virtual program?

Lewis and Hulbert say "face-to-face interaction with students and parents is vital to running a successful virtual school."

"When a student or family needs assistance, in addition to on-line support, they need a place where they can meet with mentor teachers and staff. Furthermore, students must be physically present for final exams," they said.

"OVA's mobile labs in Oxford, Rochester, Farmington Hills, Royal Oak and Flint (coming soon) provide additional convenience and flexibility to its clientele for one-on-one tutoring."

When asked why the school district didn't use the $1.2 million in bond savings it had in 2011 to add space to existing school facilities for things like classrooms dedicated to on-line learning and office space for staff, Lewis and Hulbert replied that OVA "didn't exist when decisions were made to implement improvements beyond the original scope of work due to bond savings."

Some people may wonder how does the school district occupying a third downtown space benefit surrounding businesses?

With 150 to 200 kids that go in and out of the lab in a day, Hulbert said it brings increased foot traffic.

"On an average day at any given time, there are 30 kids in there to taking tests, taking quizzes, getting tutored, so some of the parents are driving from a long ways away such as Lapeer, Lake Orion, Romeo and Clarkston," he said. "So, while the child is getting tutored or taking a final exam or something, (parents are) out in the downtown area."

Lewis and Hulbert also said OVA, district vendors, suppliers and staff frequently lunch downtown, as well as food such as cookies, candy, snacks, pizza and beverages for OVA events are purchased in Oxford.

"Virtual school events that bring foot traffic include picture day, count day, MEAP testing, ACT week, final exams, (not to mention) all testing and finals must be taken in the lab and not virtually," they said. "OVA also invites local businesses to advertise and post event flyers in their entrance vestibule and/or bulletin board."

Hulbert said they will generate even more traffic during the summer due to their summer school credit recovery program or course advancement program, which runs through the virtual academy and new student enrollment and orientation will also take place at those buildings.

"It will be busier foot traffic in the summer than it will the entire year," he said. "We advertise that credit recovery to all local districts and we out-compete them in pricing, so we see (students from) Lake Orion (and) Lapeer. They send kids here to do credit recovery."

While Hulbert believes there is the potential to grow even beyond their current two buildings, he said they will have to make the current two buildings work for the virtual academy. "We don't want to occupy anymore downtown space," he said. "We understand certain members of the community would like see retail in there, so we're going to respectfully limit ourselves to where we're at right now."

"Oxford Community Schools is not interested in buying up real estate downtown," said Superintendent Dr. William Skilling as he addressed the Downtown Development Authority board at its Jan. 21 meeting. "We bought one place and that's it."

"The current place to use for the virtual academy is temporary," he continued. "In trying to help a business owner, we said yes to leasing the space next door. But our goal is to not be in the downtown area with our virtual school."

Skilling noted how DDA Board Member Anna Taylor "educated" him at a meeting last fall about "having more retail or less retail and how that impacts the community."

"It was all news to me. I had no idea," he told the DDA board. "And right away, I thought, 'Okay, we've got to get out of the downtown area.' Where we thought we were just being helpful, we didn't realize the negative impact."