This Utah virtual high school opened this fall — and was at full capacity by spring

Jordan School District opened its first online high school last fall, and last week celebrated 48 new grads.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ryan Fleck and counselor Chandra Walker after commencement exercises at Kings Peak High School in Bluffdale on Thursday, June 2, 2022.

After experimenting with online education — during school closures, asynchronous learning days or other variations caused by the COVID-19 pandemic — many kids have rejoiced at the chance to study in traditional classrooms.

But for students at Kings Peak High School, a virtual public school in Bluffdale that launched last fall, embracing education online was the point.

Samantha Filby, a member of Kings Peak’s Class of 2022, has endured numerous surgeries to treat her heart condition. When the pandemic arrived during the middle of her sophomore year, going to school in person wasn’t safe.

She tried a year of online instruction through her boundary school, Copper Hills High, but “it wasn’t really the best,” Filby said. When she heard that Jordan School District was starting a school where teachers delivered instruction entirely online, she jumped at the chance to try it.

Filby was a good student at Copper Hills, she said, but she became an exceptional one at Kings Peak. She earned a 4.0 GPA across her two semesters, was named president of the school’s chapter of the National Honors Society and was awarded a scholarship to use in college.

“I feel like I excelled as a person. Like I’ve grown up a little bit. I’ve been given responsibilities,” Filby said. “… I learned a lot about myself, like I can do a lot more now than I could do before.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kings Peak High School students walk in commencement exercises at the virtual learning school in Bluffdale on Thursday, June 2, 2022.

Filby is one of many students in Utah who decided to continue their education online after the COVID-19 pandemic began. However, Principal Ammon Weimers doesn’t want parents to think of Kings Peak as “an alternative school.”

“People have the misconception that it might be easier or less rigorous [at Kings Peak] than at other schools, and really that’s one thing people find out right away — that they’re learning the same thing that they learn in a building. It’s just done virtually,” Weimers said.

Kings Peak enrolled 250 full-time students — meaning they take at least four courses — and around 2,000 part-time students this year, he said. It’s already looking at hiring additional teachers for next year, after the school reached its capacity during the spring semester.

Connecting with teachers

The most surprising thing about the past school year for Kings Peak teacher Kelli Malmberg was how easily she was able to develop a personal relationship with her students.

Malmberg fights off tears as she talks about working until the last second with a student who just needed to complete a few more assignments to graduate. Malmberg stayed up with the student and her mother until 2:30 a.m. the night before graduation, cheering her toward the finish line.

Some of the connections she developed with students online were deeper than any of the ones she made teaching in person, Malmberg said. The one-on-one chats Malmberg had with her students, and the responsibility they had to take for their own learning, she said, made the relationships feel more personal.

New graduate Ryan Fleck said the “super friendly and super accommodating” teachers he learned from were the highlight of his time at Kings Peak. Getting help on an assignment was as simple as sending an email, Filby said.

Students at Kings Peak complete assignments laid out in modules through an academic software called Canvas. Teachers offer two hour-long Zoom lectures for each class each week, but students aren’t required to participate in real time.

This flexibility is essential for students who are working to help support their parents or raising a child of their own, said Language Arts teacher Derick Varn. And for others, working on their own schedule just works better for them.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kings Peak High School students move their tassels at the end of commencement exercises at the virtual learning school in Bluffdale on Thursday, June 2, 2022. From left are Tessa Marty, Taylor DiAntonio, and Whitney Face.

The online format also gives teachers time to prepare lessons well in advance and offers useful data for educators to use in customizing instruction for students, Varn said.

Teachers can use the technology to see whether a student is taking longer than usual with an assignment, what time of the week they choose to complete their homework and how long it takes for them to complete a test.

That data is especially valuable for teachers as they work with struggling students or students with special needs, Varn said, and teaching online allows educators to modify instruction for those students without alerting their classmates.

The virtual curriculum also promotes autonomy for both teachers and students, Varn said. Teachers “have to do a lot more active outreach” because their students aren’t in their immediate vicinity each day. And students know that their assignments for the week are due at 6 p.m. on Friday and it’s up to them to complete them and ask for help before then.

Completing her senior year at Kings Peak allowed Abby Zaelit to hold down a job during the day. But she admits that at times, finding the motivation to complete assignments proved tough without the traditional classroom environment.

“They could not handle sitting in a classroom”

There were 48 students who made up Kings Peak High School’s first graduating class on June 2, and Weimers anticipates that number will grow in the years to come.

Jordan’s Virtual Learning Academy accommodates students throughout K-12 in its three schools — Rocky Peak Elementary, Kelsey Peak Middle and Kings Peak High. Any student who lives in Utah can take a class at Kings Peak.

Before the three-school virtual academy was created in 2021, Jordan School District had offered an online learning program for years. The program’s enrollment had grown by about 20% year over year throughout the last five years, Weimers said, and he anticipates the Virtual Learning Academy will continue to grow at a similar pace.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kings Peak High School student Dezirae Hernandez prepares to walk in commencement exercises at the virtual learning school in Bluffdale on Thursday, June 2, 2022.

Enrollment at virtual public charter Mountain Heights Academy, which opened in 2009, had gradually increased before the 2019-20 school year, when enrollment reached 800 students, said Principal DeLaina Tonks. When the pandemic hit, the school’s population exploded beyond 1,300 students — in grades seven through 12 — for the 2020-21 school year.

Those numbers have receded, to 971 for the 2021-22 school year, but enrollment was still higher than prepandemic levels. Tonks said that more than 1,000 students have enrolled for next year.

Many of the students Tonks met at the school’s orientation last year tried going back to brick and mortar schools, but “they could not handle sitting in a classroom all day long,” Tonks said. Others decided to split their time between their boundary school and Mountain Heights.

The Utah Legislature updated the Statewide Online Education Program during the 2022 session to allow students to take concurrent enrollment courses at online schools, which were previously only offered to students that enrolled in online school full-time.