In this school without walls, teachers want to help students love learning
Maize Virtual Preparatory School’s Spanish teacher explains how the school elevates online learning to an enriching experience built around the individual.
By Stefania Lugli | March 15, 2023
Maize Kansas.- Over 400 students Kansas-wide attend a school without walls: USD266’s Maize Virtual Preparatory School. The school touts itself as a pioneer of online education while listing impressive details on its website: Chromebooks for every student, individual programs developed around a student’s needs, organized field trips and the option to graduate with up to 24 college credits.
Alejandra Prendes teaches Spanish to high school students for both VPS and Maize High School. She’s an incredibly proud proponent for VPS, claiming that it’s one of the best education systems of its kind nationwide — and she should know, for she’s been teaching for over 17 years. Prendes has also volunteered for the National Alliance for Mental Illness - Wichita, offering classes for family members or support systems for adults living with mental illness in Spanish to help bridge information gaps.
Planeta Venus interviewed Prendes on how online schooling can provide an intimate connection in-person classes can’t, and why she believes so strongly in VPS programming. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me about your role at VPS. What are you doing to expand its visibility?
Online schools don’t tend to have a lot of diversity, and most of them don’t have bilingual programs. I’ve been teaching Spanish for a long time [in Maize’s school district], and now I’ll be kind of the main contact for our Hispanic community, including being a translator for our virtual students.
The district asked me, ‘why don’t we have enough Hispanic people?’ I said it’s the lack of connection with parents. The students are not the problem. When the first generation of immigrants arrive, we do not have the necessary information to be able to decide what the best options are for our children. It is quite common that we do not even know which education system is best. We have the responsibility to meet families where they are — not the other way around.
VPS is not just for Maize students, either. We have students from all across the state of Kansas; Garden City, Junction County, Kansas City, providing options to families in any community to quality education at their doorstep. (Spanish-speaking families) don’t know about these kinds of options because of the information gap. So, my role is to be the bridge between the classroom and students.
You said earlier in the conversation that online schools don’t have a lot of diversity in their student population. What do you think could be done to attract more diversity?
I think one of the things is to tell the community that we are here. Most of the time, they don’t know. We [at VPS] can provide an interpreter any time our Spanish-speaking families want information. And if the kids are in school, I can be there. So we need to prioritize getting the word out and emphasizing our accessibility. Like I’m doing now!
Are there any benefits in being in online school you don’t get when attending an in-person class?
The most important thing is that each student gets an individual plan — which is very valuable because each of our students have different necessities. We have excellent teachers with master’s degrees, we have an enormous amount of flexibility, and we provide aid to our students. But what I love the most: the connection we build with each family. The communication between families, students and ourselves is very, very important to us.
When you go to a normal, in-person school, students need to follow the plan they mandate for everybody. We mold our courses around the students — we are very aware of individual needs. One of our goals is to encourage good habits in our students while taking in our curriculum: time management, organization, problem-solving, and the planning and execution of their goals. MVPS values integrity, perseverance, strong communication and personal reflection. Students have one-on-one meetings with teachers twice a week, allowing space to communicate needs or successes. It’s very hard to find that in normal schooling.
As an online school, we do lack that organic social environment of an everyday classroom, which is very important for kids. But we hold events in different areas of the state to build community and communicate in-person.
During the pandemic, a lot of classes ended up going virtual. Since 2020, have you noticed any kind of increase in enrollment? Do you think people are more open to virtual school since COVID began?
Yes, absolutely. In the past 3 years, we have had a lot of students enroll with some reduction in enrollment. But I think we had a unique experience during COVID. While all other schools were trying to figure out how to educate their students, ours were fine. In-person courses were forced to implement coursework that we’ve had in our foundation for a long, long time. So our students were not overwhelmed by a dramatic change in schooling. They just continued to work at a normal pace.
At the time (of COVID shutting down schools), I was working at Maize Middle School and felt terrible for all the teachers and students trying to adjust to distance learning. It was very, very nice to have had the opportunity to lean into the online experience at such a crucial time.
To learn more about MVPS, visit their website at maizevirtualprepschool.com. Any student that’s a resident of Kansas can attend and would graduate from the school with a Maize Schools degree. You can also reach out to Prendes directly at 316-299-8728.