(TNS) -- EAST HARTFORD — The Department of Children and Families on Thursday publicly introduced an online education and tutoring program that it says will help students in foster care graduate from high school.
Virtual Academy, which the department started using in February, has helped 95 students in foster care earn credits toward high school graduation by offering classes, SAT prep and GED assistance online, DCF officials said.
Through Virtual Academy, students take classes online in subjects such as geometry and U.S. history. DCF has also assigned teachers to each student for one-on-one help. If they run into obstacles with the curriculum, students can email one of the seven teachers assigned to Virtual Academy or meet one on one. Each teacher is also tasked with making sure the students are learning a curriculum that is specifically tailored for their needs.
"Children in foster care face many challenges and obstacles and in many instances, they face those challenges without the family and other supports that most children have," DCF commissioner Joette Katz said. "So if the state can do something to boost these youth, then we have a special responsibility to give them a fighting chance to succeed."
While attending local schools, foster children can make up class credits with Virtual Academy after the regular school day is done, on weekends and during the summer.
DCF school district Superintendent Chris Leone said that students in foster care may experience difficulties in school, often because they will move from family to family and change schools in the process, and many have experienced traumatic events in their lives.
"Growing up, it's hard enough to learn and then you have certain things in your life," Leone said. "We program individually for each kid."
It was Leone's idea to bring Virtual Academy to Connecticut after he saw a need for better tools for success in high school students who are also in foster care. Students can be referred by teachers, DCF employees, social workers and foster parents to use the program.
"We saw a need in our secondary students … we needed to find a way to help our kids graduate," Leone said.
Samantha, 17, one of Virtual Academy's students, is taking four classes with the program.
"I felt the need to enroll in the program to make up credit which I had been missing due to poor attendance and missing homework," Samantha said.
She said she does her regular schoolwork during the day and then does the additional work with Virtual Academy. She hopes to graduate high school and attend college when she finishes.
According to data from the United States Department of Education, about 50 percent of youth in foster care nationwide graduate from high school. Of that number, 20 percent go on to post-secondary education.
Gary Kleeblatt, a DCF spokesman, said Connecticut's rate of graduation is about the same.
Katz and Leone want to raise that number, and they think Virtual Academy will help.
"Because of Virtual Academy…the number has the potential to grow substantially," Katz said. "The mission of our agency is to make sure our children grow up healthy, smart, safe and strong."
Sara Moore, a teacher with DCF schools, said Virtual Academy is a testament to how education can be individualized to meet students' needs.
"In a changing world, there is a need more than ever for innovative education," Moore said. "It provides a way for adolescents who have encountered an array of obstacles in a traditional environment to succeed…it allows us to help them meet their educational goals and enhance their high school experience."
Moore said use of technology in educational settings can help increase motivation and give students access to learning 24/7.
"They can attend college and find the career of their dreams, thus becoming a productive member of society," Moore said.
©2016 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.