For students, progressing through a traditional brick-and-mortar school isn’t just about excelling academically; it’s about growing socially and emotionally as well. Friendships are made, interests are explored, and preparations for the future are set in motion. And despite what you might think, all of these things remain true at Oregon Charter Academy (ORCA), where students can participate in a diverse array of extracurricular activities, even though they are connecting through a virtual platform.
At ORCA, there are more than 30 clubs available to the student body, with subjects ranging from chess to coding, arts and crafts, music, prayer, NASA, and even Pokémon. By coming together to enjoy kindred passions, classmates can bond and get to know one another outside of the regular coursework.
“The clubs are driven by student interest, and teachers are there to help fan the flames,” explains High School Principal Matt Lacy. “Our teachers are readily accessible to our students at the drop of an email, a text, or a call.”
Over the last year, students started a running club where they would log their hours and arrange virtual 3K races. There are also chapters for Business Professionals of America, Educators Rising, and National Honor Society, plus a Breakfast Club for the LGBTQ population and supporters and a Military Leadership group.
In coffee shops around Portland, the English Language Arts department often hosts poetry readings, where students analyze passages and discuss books they’re reading in class.
“Students are excited for events and field trips, to see each other and grow the friendships they have started in their online classes. They want to be there,” Lacy says. “They want to gather with other students around common interests.”
In fact, ORCA is home to the Oregon Poetry Out Loud state champion, Tabarjah Neal, who recently competed at the national level.
Just as any other school, ORCA elects kids in grades 5–12 to various positions, such as president, treasurer, and secretary, for its student government. What sets this scholastic democracy apart is its degree of representation for student affairs.
“Our high school student government has a place at the leadership table,” Lacy says. “They know about what’s going on at the administrative level, and they get to have input. It’s a back-and-forth thing. Student government members aren’t just event planners. They have a legitimate say in what’s going on in the school, and that’s entirely unique.”
Every month, different members of the student government collaborate to help produce a video newsletter that’s shared with the entire student body and with parents. So while they don’t conduct assemblies, they’re still getting in front of a camera and practicing their public speaking, developing important life skills along the way.
One of the most recent successes for student leadership was putting on the first-ever virtual winter formal at Oregon Charter Academy.
“This has been a difficult year in public education across the state of Oregon,” Lacy said. “The students were hurting. They needed something a little more to look forward to. So, they came together and asked, ‘What can we do?’ Students decided to throw a virtual formal, and they made it happen—we just ensured they had the tools.”
Lacy hosted the dance via Zoom from his living room, and what ensued was a night of laughter, music, and some serious moves—memories that neither he nor the kids will ever forget. Pre-Covid, ORCA hosted in-person proms each year, and it will continue that tradition this year.
Field trips are an integral part of being an ORCA student, but during the pandemic, teachers certainly had to get creative by organizing virtual museum visits, dissections, and presentations from guest speakers.
Pre-Covid, ORCA hosted over 200 in-person event opportunities all over the state throughout the year. Events also included students gathering at the school’s Wilsonville facilities to collaborate on science experiments. Students and parents also toured the Salem capitol building, gaining an up-close perspective of the legislative process (not to mention the World War II exhibit on display at the time). Lacy adds, “There was a wonderful field trip to the Alsea River, where our students got to explore wildlife habitat and look at the biodiversity within a typical water system here in Oregon. That was pretty exciting.”
Classes also participated in virtual trips to zoos and continued its NASA assemblies from the Goddard Space Flight Center each month.
These excursions aren’t limited to the I-5 corridor, either. Teachers are located throughout the state, as are the students, so ORCA is equitable with the opportunities it provides.
Athletics and Competition
It is important to understand that students receiving their schooling online with ORCA doesn’t reduce their opportunities to be involved in their local communities. Though the school doesn’t provide any sports teams itself, it is recognized by the Oregon State Activities Association, which means each student can participate in football, basketball, softball, or any other OSAA-sanctioned sport or activity, as long as it's in their geographic school district.
“All of our students can participate in any OSAA-sanctioned activity, if it’s provided,” Lacy says. “So not just sports, but band, orchestra, cheerleading, speech and debate, etc.”
While education is the main focus, having opportunities to engage socially and emotionally with each other is also a priority at Oregon Charter Academy. Being a virtual school offers limitless possibilities to support the whole student.