If you’re looking for a detailed REACH Cyber Charter School review from a totally unbiased source, I’ve got you covered. My son is just about finished with his first year at REACH, the Connections Academy cyber school in Pennsylvania. Today, I’m going to tell you everything we loved about it, the few things that we didn’t love, and what to expect when your child attends REACH.
There are a lot of cyber schools out there these days, and it can be hard to decide which is the best! My goal is to provide you with everything I wanted to know while making my decision. If you have any questions once your done reading my review, please feel free to ask!
To avoid turning this into a tl;dr thing, I’m breaking this up into sections that you can quickly and easily digest, starting with the “Reader’s Digest” mini review and quick glance pros and cons. Then I’ll get more detailed for those of you who prefer a more in-depth review.
THE TL, DR VERSION
Long story short, we really like REACH Cyber School. We’ve had far more good experiences over the last school year than negative. It’s been a lot better for my son’s mental health than public school, which is why we chose to go with cyber schooling in the first place.
Whether you’re more hands-on with your child’s schooling or prefer to leave most of the teaching to certified teachers, REACH slides right into your comfort zone. Every class has at least one teacher that specializes in the subject, and your kids can contact them at any time. These teachers (or their qualified assistants) also run the Live Lessons, which is the REACH equivalent to a classroom setting.
While you do need to be more involved with your kids’ education than you may be at a brick-and-mortar school, if you work full-time (or just don’t feel comfortable teaching) your kids aren’t just on their own for lessons. I think that was my biggest worry going into it: that Jake wouldn’t have any real support.
For those of us who are more hands-on, there are a lot of ways for you to be involved. I chose to learn Jake’s lessons ahead of time and teach him a few subjects myself. I was able to get him to actually focus in social studies (and finish with an A average), a subject he really doesn’t love, by creating my own more relatable mini-lessons to supplement the actual lesson.
Overall, we are happy enough with REACH Cyber that we’ve already completed the enrollment process for next year.
PROS & CONS of REACH Cyber Charter School
Pros in detail
- Free tuition & gift cards to offset internet cost– there is no fee for enrolling or attending REACH Cyber Charter School, and they will even send you a gift card every few months to offset the cost of the internet. I’m not sure if the offset varies just by state or by area, but I get $120 every three months during the school year.
- School provides just about everything- REACH will send you pretty much everything you really need, including a laptop computer and a printer. Do not let the overwhelming list of “things you need to provide” freak you out. That list contains every perishable item for every single experiment and project (many of which you don’t HAVE to do), as well as stuff you probably won’t even use. I just bought things as I needed, and probably spent less than $50 the entire school year. You will need to return the PC & printer when you leave REACH, and the text books at the end of each year.
- Very flexible scheduling- Depending on what grade your child is in, you can completely customize their entire schedule. I’m not sure if they allow this for the very early grades, but my son is in 7th grade and I had full control. As long as you distribute the classes so that they are completed by the end of the semester, you can customize to your heart’s content. Before you schedule, you can even add in family vacations, doctor’s appointments, and more so that classes aren’t scheduled on those days.
- Can do anywhere (website works on tablets & phones)- As long as you have a way to access the internet, your child can do their school work. Jake has done his classes on his school computer, his personal PC, my PC, and on my iPad.
- Highly-qualified teachers for each subject-As touched on above, every class has its own certified teacher. Some classes have more than one, depending on the size. Your and your student can call or email their teachers at any time during regular school hours. I’ve emailed teachers after school hours and they still responded that evening.
- Personalized support from family coordinator – When you join REACH, you’ll get a family coordinator that will help you through the entire process and during the year. If they don’t know an answer to a question, they’ll find it for you.
Cons in detail
- Very difficult to opt out of PSSAs- This is my only real complaint about REACH. Every year from 3rd to 6th grade, Jake opted out of the PSSAs (our state’s standardized test). In the past, I would sign a form saying I saw the test, view the test, then send in my letter. For REACH, you have to physically go to Harrisburg (3 hours away from me) to do the first part. They will also make you feel very guilty about trying to opt out before they even start to give you the instructions. Since traveling three hours away was a hardship for us, Jake took the tests. I don’t like that they make it a hardship to exercise your legal right to opt your child out of a mess of a test that shouldn’t exist in the first place.
- Reliable internet connection is a must- While this isn’t a problem for most of us, if you have a less-than-reliable ISP, you’ll run into some problems. We lost our internet along with our power for over a week when Riley hit. We did offline educational activities, then just got caught up when it came back. It wasn’t a major issue for us, but if you have a child prone to falling behind, it can become a huge challenge.
- No easy access to the B&M school*-Unless you live close to Harrisburg, you can’t really just pop by the school to get things done. While this wasn’t an issue for me 99.9% of the year, when it came to the state testing, it was a huge problem.
- Very few local field trips* – If you live near a larger city, this won’t be a problem. Unfortunately, we were unable to attend any of the field trips because they were quite a hike from us. I don’t drive on the highway (I’m terrified of it).
- Lack of social interaction – I have mixed feelings about including this on the con list because REACH does offer plenty of opportunities for your kids to connect with other students. From field trips (that, despite being too far for me, do exist) to meetups to a database with students interested in connecting (it’s voluntary), your kids do have a chance to interact. Also, I noticed that Jake actually spends MORE time with his two best friends from school, even though all three of them are now in different schools (one public, one private, and one cyber).
- Kids must be motivated & self-disciplined- Unless you want to stand over your child’s shoulder for 6 hours a day, you really need a kid who is motivated and self-disciplined enough to work well on his or her own.
The enrollment process
Enrolling was a lot easier than I thought it would be. Once you make the decision to enroll and fill out the required forms, REACH will give you a login to the Parent dashboard (they call it Learning Coach central). From there, you’ll see a handy checklist of everything you need to submit.
I was able to submit all my documents online, but if you can’t for whatever reason, I believe you can fax or mail them. The image above is a list of the documents I had to submit as a returning student. The first-timer list a bit longer, but you get the idea.
Setting up the Planner
Once your child is enrolled and they receive their course selections (for elementary and middle school they pick for you, high school may have more control over selections), it’s time to set up your child’s planner. Now, keep in mind that Jake is in middle school, so I don’t know if elementary or high school does things differently.
If you prefer, you can just go with the schedule they set, but Jake and I wanted more control. Basically, I could decide which classes took place on which days as long as I had enough of each class scheduled during the week to finish on time. I could make Friday an easy day, for example, by just having him do a Language Arts (you’ll need that pretty much every day) and then his “extras,” like Health, Education Technology, and Art.
Once you’re done, you can look at your child’s planner to see what they have coming up. I grabbed this screen shot from Jake’s first semester, and for some reason it doesn’t show all his classes, but again, you get the gist.
The different colors indicate different things. Green is a Live Lesson, the yellow indicates holidays, or the first or last days of school, and the pinkish color is for his regular classes. You can also see at a glance whether your child has any quizzes, tests, or portfolios (more on that in a minute) coming up.
You can rerun the scheduler at any time. When we lost power for 8 days, I rearranged things a bit so that he wasn’t stuck with a week’s worth of overdue lessons. Since we usually work ahead, then reschedule to bump classes up, it was easy to bump a few back.
What are the classes like on REACH?
I’m not going to screen shot an actual class because I don’t know if that’s allowed, so I “redacted” the actual slide and added my own notes.
Basically, each lesson consists of at least 4 slides (except for the tests, which usually just have one or two). Whether it has 4 slides or ten of them, you’ll usually see the same basic format across every lesson. This includes:
- Getting Started– brief overview of the class along with the objectives and keywords your student should learn by the end of the lesson.
- Instruction– on these slides, you’ll find notes about the subject, questions to think about (and a button for the answer), and links to things like videos, online textbooks, and more.
- Activity– these slides let your kids do some sort of interactive activity to help drive the lesson home. Sometimes it’s something they can do online, like a game. Other times, they’ll be directed to write in their journals.
- Review- just what it sounds like, a quick review of everything your child should have learned during this lesson
- Assessment- This is where your kids prove they actually learned something. We will talk more about those below.
One thing to keep in mind: your child isn’t required to do every last activity or view every single video in the slides prior to the assessment. REACH offers numerous different resources for each lesson because every child has a different learning style.
Jacob has come across classes where he already had a firm grasp on the objectives. I would have him just “flip” through the slides to make sure there wasn’t anything new to him, then go right to the assessment. While REACH says that each lesson should take about an hour, we’ve had some that we finished in five minutes. We’ve also had a few that took hours to do because of portfolios. It all evens out in the end.
Let’s talk more about those assessments, because they are actually a mandatory part of the lesson.
5 Main Types of REACH Assessments
Aside from any mandatory state testing, all assessments are done at home and assume that your kids are following the honor system.
1. Quick Check
The most common assessment, quick checks are short quizlets, usually between 3-5 questions, that focus on the key objectives. All of the quick checks combined usually make up between 5-10% of your child’s grades. Depending on the class, these may even be “open book.” They’re almost always multiple choice.
Quizzes usually make up about 10-20% of your child’s grade for each class. They’re typically around 10 questions. Some may have 1-2 short answers, but for the most part they are multiple choice. The number of quizzes varies by class, but I’d say Jake’s average class had about 10 a semester.
Tests are always “closed book,” unless otherwise denoted. Language Arts is the only class Jake had that included an open book section on the test. In classes that don’t use portfolios (below), tests make up the biggest chunk of your students grade, between 30-50%. There are about 4-5 per class per semester, and they include a mix of multiple choice and written answers.
Portfolios are like those major class projects that we used to do in school. They differ depending on the class, but most of them can be done on the computer. Most of Jake’s involved creating a Power Point presentation around a certain topic. Art class is a bit different. Your child will actually create their art work, then you either scan it or take a picture and upload it to the teacher.
These make up a huge chunk of your grade in most classes. In Art, they made up at least 50% of the grade.
Not all classes use Discussions, and even in those that do they don’t make up a huge part of the grade. I think they were only worth about 5-10% in most of Jake’s classes. Still, they bear mentioning under assessments.
What type of support is available for parents?
As a “Learning Coach,” you are primarily responsible for making sure your child puts in the time and completes their work. You’ll also need to monitor their progress. Don’t worry, though, REACH doesn’t just leave you on your own! Some of the resources available include:
Your family coordinator
Every REACH family has a coordinator that keeps in touch with them throughout the year. You’ll receive monthly check-in calls to make sure everything is going okay, or you can just call them up with any questions you have. If they don’t know it, they’ll tell you who does.
REACH has message boards where Learning Coaches can interact with each other and get advice. They aren’t as active as I hoped they’d be, but if you do ask a question someone usually does respond within a few days.
REACH has its own email system that you can access when you log in. From there, you can get in touch with pretty much every teacher and administrator and ask them questions. You’ll also get a copy sent to your primary email address, so you don’t have to log in constantly to see if they responded.
Your children’s teachers
Your kids’ teachers are available to help you during regular school hours. Some of them even check in and respond on weekends, but don’t expect them to do so. They have lives and need time off, too!
Overall, Jake had such a positive experience at REACH. So much so that he’s going again for 8th grade. If you’re looking for a great cyberschool with a robust curriculum, I definitely recommend Connections Academy.