All of the early exhibits at Nevada Connections Academy’s Jan. 15 science fair looked immaculate.
All of the 10- and 11-year-olds who made them showed up at the Aliante Library, 2400 Deer Springs Road, on time and with smiles on their faces.
Each of the fourth- and fifth-graders attending the virtual charter school’s annual fair also seemed more than happy to explain — at length, without prompting — how pink dolphins get their hue or how planes disappear in the Bermuda Triangle.
In short, this was not a typical science fair.
“These are exceptional kids,” said academy principal Steve Werlein. “It’s not for everybody — you have to have a dedicated learning coach, usually a parent — but we have a really good staff, and for a lot of kids, it’s a great model.”
Werlein, who has headed Nevada’s largest all-virtual academy since July, said it’s not uncommon for the school’s 2,000 students — whose school-day interactions with teachers and peers take place entirely online — to get excited about school-sponsored social events such as the science fair or weekly lunch excursions at Lone Mountain Discovery Park.
That’s especially true, he said, of the academy’s gifted and talented students — the fourth- and fifth-graders who set up the first dioramas and models at this month’s science fair.
Werlein said schools such as the academy are almost tailor-made for students underserved by the traditional public school model.
Many of those who are bored in class, or possibly overwhelmed, have found a home at the academy in recent years, along with plenty of students who wouldn’t have been able to reach a traditional classroom in the first place.
The virtual charter school’s model — built around teacher-led, home-based study of a school-provided curriculum — emphasizes small classroom sizes and individualized learning plans.
It’s accessible to any kindergarten through 12th-grader who can find an Internet connection, including kids in one-room schoolhouses and students 60 miles removed from the nearest school bus stop.
Werlein guesses that’s a big part of the school’s appeal.
“We have students in 24 rural areas where families can’t or don’t want to go to the local school district,” he said. “We go out of our way to offer community events in those areas.”
Henderson resident Lisa Strahlem has seen both of her sons work their way through the three-star state-rated academy over the past several years.
It was a struggle, she said, to watch her oldest fall behind in public school before enrolling him in the academy.
But it did give her cause to sign up his younger brother for the charter school earlier.
“They’re doing really well,” Strahlem said. “They get everything they would get out of a public school, but they’re in constant contact with their teacher, and they can get online feedback (on lessons) right then and there.”
Strahlem’s youngest son Zach showed up a half-hour early to offer a presentation on mermaids at this month’s fair.
He was far from alone in his enthusiasm. Fifth-grader Kalina Abaturov spoke in fluid, unwavering paragraphs on the mysteries of squid camouflage. Emily Renville, 11, could recite the eccentricities of rogue waves from memory.
Extraordinary kids don’t always thrive in ordinary schools. Thankfully for Werlein, no one has ever accused the academy of being ordinary.
“The biggest advantage I think is the (curriculum’s) individualized focus,” he said. “A school district can’t hire a Chinese teacher to teach five kids, where we have one who teaches kids around the country.
“It’s a lot more focused, a lot more effective, than a teacher in a room trying to reach 35 students.”
For more information on Nevada Connections Academy, visit connectionsacademy.com.
Contact Centennial and North Las Vegas View reporter James DeHaven at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-477-3839.