Daily Astorian

As parents, teachers and administrators supervised, students from the Oregon Connections Academy cut and pasted together paper gliders as a part of a project at the White Eagle Grange south of Pendleton.

While Thursday's scene is familiar in schools across the state, many of these faculty members reside hundreds of miles away from their pupils and students go months without seeing their classmates.

But that's the central conceit of the academy, which is a fully accredited, statewide charter school that primarily teaches students in a virtual classroom.

As a part of a series of field trips meant to familiarize pupils with their teachers and classmates, eight students and their families converged at the hall to participate in the glider project.

Candy Farther, who serves as the principal for students from kindergarten through eighth grade and is based in Sherwood, said these field trips are integral to the academy and its far-flung student body. Eighty five of the academy's 3,700 students reside in Umatilla County, with many more living in the surrounding counties.

"We wanted to have a more small school feel in a big school reality," she said.

Third grade teacher John Meyer of Mulino led the students as they assembled the gliders. Before starting the project, Meyer asked students about the function of a vertical stabilizer on a glider.

"So it won't go dead," first-grader Rose Gray said before collapsing into a fit of giggles.

Meyer said the glider project teaches the children about physics and following directions, but the main goal of the activity is to give the children a positive social experience.

Attending her second field trip as a parent, Erin Purchase of Pendleton said the academy as a whole has been a positive experience for her daughter, second-grader Mykayla Comstock.

After Comstock was diagnosed with leukemia, Purchase pulled her out of public school. Purchase struggled to simultaneously teach a home-school curriculum and shuttle Comstock between Pendleton and Doernbecher Children's Hospital in Portland for chemotherapy.

Purchase decided to have Comstock repeat the second grade at the academy and has been pleased with the results.

"When she is ill physically, she doesn't have to miss school like all the other public schools," Purchase said.

Even though Comstock has shown progress, Purchase is contemplating whether to keep her daughter in the academy or put her back in public school.

Comstock has already made up her mind.

"I want to go to public school next year," she said. "I want to meet new friends."

Gray's mother said her daughter has also expressed interest in attending a public school in their hometown of Elgin.

Academy Outreach Manager Laura Dillon said many academy parents consider moving their students back to the public school system. But Dillon doesn't consider it a challenge to hold onto students; many parents move their children back to the academy because they miss the flexibility of online courses and the one-on-one attention.

Regardless of the local parents' final decision on their daughters, both Comstock and Gray's mothers said they will enroll their younger children in the academy when they reach kindergarten age.

Contact Antonio Sierra at asierra@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0836.

This story originally appeared in East Oregonian.

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