Choosing a virtual K-12 education

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RENO, Nev. (KOLO) - It's the first day of school for Sophia Riella, but the 8-year-old never had to change out of her pajamas. All she had to do was log on to her computer at her Northwest Reno home.

"I think it's going to go well," she says.

This is Sophia's second year as a student at Nevada Connections Academy. It's a free online public school. Sophia's parents decided on this over a traditional school because of her severe allergies and autoimmune deficiency.

"When we did have her in a brick and mortar school, she would be sick all the time. She picks up things instantly and that puts her in the hospital," says Lena Riella, Sophia's mom.

In fact, Sophia was in and out of the hospital for seven months last year, but never fell behind on her studies, thanks to the flexibility of this virtual school.

"I know there's a big demand on the part of a lot of parents and students for alternative options to complete their education," says Steve Werlein, Executive Director of Nevada Connections Academy.

Werlein says more Nevada families are choosing this option. He says since 2013, enrollment at the school has doubled. He says it has nearly 2,700 students enrolled statewide. While 75 percent of its students are in Clark County, it's recently seen a big growth in demand in Washoe County.

"I think there's a lot of dissatisfaction in class sizes and with some of the other issues that Washoe is facing. Not to judge them at that, but parents look at the options they have and look at the quality of the curriculum and are looking for choices and that's really what it comes down to," says Werlein.

"As a parent, I want to make sure that she gets the best education that she can have. And this is her affording her that," says Lena Riella, who says the online school gives her child more personalized attention. "She has individual counseling when she wants it and guidance through her teacher she can call 24-7, which is nice."

Werlein says the stigma of online public schools has changed over the last few years.

"I think initially when online education started, there was a perception that it was glorified correspondence school where you logged in and got a grade. The fact that our courses are recognized by the NCAA, the fact that our students attend top tier universities across the country, I think that is going away and the rigor of what we do is actually being recognized," says Werlein.

Since the courses are individualized, the curriculum can be as challenging as each student needs. For 8-year-old Sophia, that means studying at the fifth grade level. After consistently getting straight A's last year, she is excited to see what this one will bring.

"It will be a lot more challenging for me, but I think it will be a pretty good, pretty nice school year," she says.