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Jamie Nelson, director of Digital Pathways Academy

There are 1,400 students enrolled in Sahuarita Unified School District’s new Digital Pathways Academy, a fully online learning option for K-12 students.

The academy’s director is Jamie Nelson, who has a background in elementary and special education. 

Tell us about yourself.

I’ve lived in Southern Arizona since 1995. I went to high school and college here. I attended the University of Arizona and got my bachelor's degree in elementary education as well as special education. I jumped into teaching right away and got to teach first grade, third grade and taught special education for seven years. My most recent teaching role was at Anza Trail School as a reading specialist. I took over the role of Academic Pathways director three years ago and have been growing the program for the last three years, including the alternative school and the Sahuarita online school which we’ve expanded into Digital Pathways Academy. In between there, I also attended Northern Arizona University and earned my master's in educational leadership.

I'm a Sahuarita resident. I moved down when I started working with the district and when my husband and I met I relocated to Marana but continued to make the drive down here. We just recently bought a house down here so we are here and happy to be a part of this community.

What does a typical day look like for you in your role as director for Digital Pathways Academy?

I’m finding that my days are spent on answering emails, responding to parents’ questions and having conversations with families. Right now this is a new experience for a lot of our families. They’re nervous and they want that support. They want to know they’re making the right decisions. 

What's one thing you want parents to know about Digital Pathways Academy?

I would say we’re all in this together. This is a team effort. District-wide, we’ve been really lucky to hire teachers who are currently SUSD teachers. That took a team effort involving our site principals, teachers transferring over to this new role for them. Our district administration has worked really close together to make sure that we have the resources that we needed to establish and grow this program. We have that teamwork aspect right on our side and are asking our parents to play a part in that team. They’ll be the ones at home seeing children day in and day out and they’ll be the ones who help teach. They’re in a coach role, a learning coach. They’re making sure students are on track, advocating for their needs.

Our team is here for them to do the best job we can and provide the best educational experience this year knowing that we're all working together to help their children succeed.

What will the students’ class days look like?

Digital Pathways Academy has two instructional modalities. Kinder through fifth-grade students are participating in a virtual class model with an assigned teacher. They’re working through grade-level standards with support through their classroom teacher. Their days will consist of online learning directly with the teacher in live classroom meetings. It will consist of pre-recorded activities that the teacher provides for them. There will be offline activities including projects continuing the work we’re already doing with the i-ready math and reading curriculum and then extension activities that help support each child's unique learning needs.

At the sixth through 12th grade level, they’re still participating in an online learning model where their instruction is provided through our curriculum partner, Edgenuity. Students will be enrolled in six classes a day. We’re essentially picking up their in-person instruction and putting it online for them. But we’re supporting them with our online learning facilitators who are highly qualified teachers from our middle and high school sites to help provide tutoring, coaching support, AP classes, providing weekly AP groups to make sure students are prepped and ready for those assessments at the end of the year.

It will be a very team approach where students have that online instruction but then they also have those real life teachers they can contact and get that tutoring support and extra help they need.

Student life?

Our students will continue to be able to participate in after school sports and clubs as long as they’re after the school day. In addition, we’re offering CTE (Career & Technical Education) classes with the same policy as homeschool students, who can attend classes on campus and attend the rest of their classes online from home.

Socialization is definitely on our hearts as we enter this journey. We know students have had limited contact with other students since March and we want to foster opportunities for them to collaborate and communicate with each other, whether that's through classroom reading or through classroom assigned projects… We’ve also built in a one-hour power lunch in the middle of the day for all our students K through 12. It will be from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and students can choose to either decompress from the computer and get offline completely to eat lunch with their family, go swimming, whatever they want to do at that time. Or, we also will be offering student interest clubs where students can get together via a Google meet session and talk about dogs, talk about their favorite sport, Minecraft, whatever their interests are.

We want to give them the opportunity to have those social experiences with each other but also learn that students can develop clubs that interest them or service models that interest them. They can support community outreach organizations, support each other. We will give them the opportunity to communicate and collaborate with each other.

Switching platforms?

We’re asking families to make that one-year commitment as possible, also recognizing needs may change. Students may desire to return to their home campus. That will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis at the end of the first semester and if we are able to successfully transfer them back to class without increasing the classroom size, that's our goal. We want to make sure students are happy and learning and if the online learning environment isn't the best fit for them we want to get them back into the classroom at the end of first semester.

It’s the other way around, too. If a student is first in a traditional classroom and wants to switch over to Digital Pathways, we can also adjust that on a case by basis.

Special education

The special education team and I are working really closely and they have been fantastic. It’s been a very collaborative process. As this program has grown very quickly we had to monitor and adapt and make sure that we’re able to support all of our families. We went from possibly providing support on a very small scale because we had very few students registered. Now, we have quite a few students who have special needs that we want to make sure that they’re getting some support and services in order for them to be successful.

We’re in the process of hiring three special education teachers to support our program in addition to counseling. We have two counselors that are tied to our program that will help support student needs. We are also working with our assistive teachers to be able to provide that gifted instruction for our gifted learners. Our goal is to provide comprehensive services as close to what students would get on the main campus, just knowing that we have to modify and adjust and adapt it for the digital environment.

Digital access

One of the questions on our registration was, ‘Do you have access to reliable internet service?’ and the overwhelming majority of family reactions was yes. We have families who have expressed interest and need for devices on loan and we will make those available specifically for that. It is on a limited basis. If we do run out, we’d work with the other school sites to make sure students who truly need that support can get that. Ideally, families should have their own devices, that's what we’re asking.

Looking forward to the new year

I'm just excited to get the team together. We have a fantastic teaching team we’ve hired and we’re starting in the next few days, having meetings, starting to plan for our families. We really want to make sure this is successful, knowing that this wasn't everyone's first choice for the school year, that many students wish they would be on campus. We want to make that transition as successful as possible. I’m looking forward to our team working together to provide parents with opportunities to learn about our various digital schools. I’m looking forward to our team providing our students with meet and greets in new and creative ways and I'm looking forward to getting to interact with students and seeing them successful on this platform.

Jamie Verwys | 520-547-9728