Isabel Sandoval poses with her parents on graduation day from Nevada Connections Academy.
The slideshow began playing, and for Nevada Connections Academy senior Isabel Sandoval, her commencement moment couldn’t have improved as she and her fellow graduates began collecting their certificates. It was emotional, exciting and tripping.
“I enjoyed graduating,” Sandoval said of her ceremony May 18. “If I could do it again, I would prefer not to trip over our microphone wire. Everyone got a good laugh. I think I was crying and laughing at the same time.”
Nearly 25 of Sandoval’s own family members celebrated with her at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center, joining with other families of other graduates from the area. Sandoval, 18, walked alongside a student she had been enrolled with since the fourth grade, sharing how they had “smacked each other in the head” with their caps.
Traditional public school or private school isn’t for everyone, and there’s a bit of a stigma sometimes she explains to others about having made the choice to be a full-time online student. Born in South Lake Tahoe, Sandoval’s family has moved around a few times to Mound House and Dayton, but they remained primarily in Carson City for about 15 years, with her father working as a mechanic. She’s had two younger siblings who also were enrolled in the academy as well.
“I am a functioning member of society,” Sandoval said. “Just because I don’t talk about shoes and boys every day doesn’t mean I can’t socialize. I socialize quite fine. A lot of people say, ‘Maybe you (go to public school) because that’s how you get experience.’ Well, what experience do you want me to learn? How cruel other people can be to one another? Not everyone wants to go to school.”
Sandoval is proud to have been attending Connections since she was in kindergarten, having passed over preschool.
“I don’t know what it was about preschool; I guess they never gave me enough snacks,” she joked. “I skipped preschool and went into kindergarten, and I never thought about changing.”
Connections has become a high school in the past two years with an enrollment of about 1,300 and a staff of 65. The school focuses on students in the upper grades. Sandoval says her virtual education has been more than satisfactory. She and her peers have taken classes at home, learning independently, and checked in daily with teachers and received homework assignments online with some students able to contact their instructors during the weekend if they need extra assistance.
Sandoval insists she has enjoyed the adaptability and that attending Connections, an online public school that uses dynamic text, videos and audio as part of its curriculum to guide students daily in a variety of subjects, has been one of the best choices she ever made. Engaging in lessons online, communicating with her teachers and still meeting with her peers in person allowed her to participate in competitive dancing and play soccer during her free time.
“I’m still on the soccer field six days a week,” she said. “I stuck with Connections. I needed the flexibility a public school couldn’t offer me.”
She worked at a fast pace, understood the material quickly and said she was reading faster than most, with her teachers telling her once to slow down. They were providing her with assistance through live experiments in chemistry as needed and offering extra credit assignments if she desired.
“I don’t know how to (slow down),” she said.
Sandoval’s interest in the virtual option for education isn’t isolated, as research into strategies for online, hybrid and blended learning continue. Full-time online school enrollments have increased by 75 percent during the pandemic, according to a report by the Digital Learning Collaborative, a membership group based in Durango, Colo., that is dedicated to producing and disseminating information about digital learning to nonprofits, school districts and other organizations. The DLC reported in its 2022 Snapshot report that most of the United States’ 100,000 schools shifted to remote learning at some point since COVID-19 erupted in 2020.
According to the report, Nevada’s fully online K-12 schools had a total of 3,887 enrollments, or .82% of the school population, during the school year 2020-21. Schools such as Las Vegas’ Nevada Learning Academy took on new approaches to serve its students better.
Sandoval has called her life “mundane” at times, but she recommends Connections for those students who have trouble focusing in a standard classroom setting. It allows everyone to work at their own comfort level or who might develop different interests, she adds.
“I think it was a few years ago, the (Nevada State Public Charter School Authority) tried to shut us down,” she said. “We stuck with (the school) then when all that went through. We went to the protests and met with the charter school board authority, and we basically told them if you take this away, you take the opportunity to graduate from all the students that were turned away from all the other schools.
“Connections accepts those students back in when the other schools kick them out to keep those graduation rates back up, and those kids graduate,” she said. “It may be in a year or two, but they graduate, and now you have kids with diplomas.”
Now she prepares to go to the University of Nevada, Reno to major in psychology before becoming an emergency room physician, she said. She also admires UNR for its medical school.
“I like operating in high-pressure situations both on the field and at work,” she said. “I like when there’s something on the line, and someone’s life – that’s a pretty big line. If people can get to them faster and figure things out faster, more people are going to survive.”
Having graduated from Connections, she’s glad she had the opportunity to benefit from a simple choice, she said.
“My parents just happened to take a chance, and it worked,” she said. “That should be the point of anything; it should be the option to choose.”