When Leonte Wilson logs on, the fun begins.
Each morning, he greets his virtual third-grade class with sunglasses and a smile – upbeat music and exciting activities cuing the day’s lesson plan. “In the classroom, I would call myself a performer, putting on a show every day to get my kids to learn something,” he says.
Since 2010, Paramount has been a trusted local school operator with a history of student achievement in neighborhoods on the city’s east side, where a significant percentage of the student population lives at or below the poverty level.
Despite the challenges facing its students, Paramount is consistently cited as one of the state’s highest performing schools.
School leadership first started preparing for a virtual instructional option in December 2019, months before the stark reality of a global pandemic hit home for the majority of Americans. Their priorities included preparing lessons, ordering Chromebooks and creating contingency plans to feed students who relied on school breakfast and lunch.
“We shut down on a Friday, and our students were ready to learn, at home, on Monday,” says Barb Richardson, Paramount’s director of advancement. “We even had t-shirts made for our teachers that read, ‘Don’t Flinch.’”
Paramount Online Academy is an Innovation Partner of Indianapolis Public Schools, one of six school districts nationwide to participate in the Center on Reinventing Public Education’s new effort to foster lasting innovation in a post-COVID landscape. The Walton Family Foundation supports this work, which is driving more equitable, community-driven approaches to learning.
Tommy Reddicks, CEO of Paramount Schools of Excellence, understands well how education has the power to change lives in his community.
In creating new virtual programming, Tommy says the school relied deeply on its commitment to offer high engagement, consistent collaboration and data-driven instruction.
“We didn’t want to create a model that was just better than bad. We wanted to create a model that could truly be good.”
When stay-at-home orders lifted and school began reopening to in-person instruction, a funny thing happened.
“We had a whole chunk of parents who said, ‘We no longer want this educational experience inside the school,’” says Tommy. “We had to make a decision as an organization to continue to serve those parents so we don’t lose those parents - understanding that the world around us is changing.”
Alongside three other in-person campuses, Paramount Online Academy launched in the fall of 2021 with 350 students enrolled.
Each day, students log on with a teacher like Leonte Wilson, who delivers live instruction followed by independent work periods and “exit ticket” checks that ensure students are on track. The school checks in with each family weekly to monitor progress and troubleshoot challenges.
Each virtual student is also eligible to participate in extracurriculars from sports to Garden Club and can receive additional in-person support at a number of area learning hubs.
“Our students can still get what they need as if they were in a physical classroom,” says principal Dr. Brandalyn Hayes. Of the pandemic, she says, the school’s virtual academic model “shows that if we can make it through that, we can make it through anything. We will be a school that is going to be talked about for years to come.”
LaToya Tahirou is the parent of two Paramount students, LaBron and Layla. Like so many families, she was at first skeptical of virtual instruction.
“In my mind, my kids were going to be in front of a computer screen the whole day … it just felt kind of impossible.”
In practice, LaToya says, “It helped my children be more responsible and more independent.
“They knew what their agenda was, what the expectations were. [Paramount] has that balance, holding them accountable in a loving way where they don’t feel like they are being dictated to, but encouraged.”
Now, LaBron is back in person, while Layla remains enrolled at Paramount Online Academy.
“Being able to have both in-person and virtual is a tremendous benefit for our family.”
Barb says families chose to stick with the virtual option for a variety of reasons.
“We have some families who are immunocompromised. We have elite student athletes who need flexibility and students who learn better in the home environment. We have parents who are struggling to afford transportation costs to school,” she says.
The online academy has also allowed Paramount to extend its reach and top-tier programming into communities beyond Indianapolis.
Through the online academy, any student in Indiana is now eligible to receive an education through Paramount Schools of Excellence.
As schools and society continue to adapt, it seems certain that virtual flexibility will play a lasting role in the way we live our lives, do our jobs and educate our kids.
Back in Leonte Wilson's virtual classroom, Layla is thriving, eager to learn in a classroom setting where she feels seen and heard as a student.
In every class, “Mr. Wilson puts the spotlight on me and acts like I’m the star of the show. That’s … really special.”