Originally published in the Belleville Telescope – December 28, 2017
Nate Freitag will teach 150 Kansas high school students US History this year–and never leave his home in Belleville. Unless he needs to work from his tractor cab. Or a hospital waiting room. Or his in-laws home in Pennsylvania.
That’s because Freitag’s classroom is a virtual classroom –taught from his computer– to students across Kansas.
Some are troubled students who struggle in a traditional classroom. Some are high achievers who want to finish high school early. Some can’t attend regular school while they take cancer treatments. Others are competitive athletes whose training schedule limits the time they can spend in the classroom. A few are children of Kansas military personnel living in other countries.
Others are non-traditional students –well past their teenage years– who regret not earning a high school diploma. “I have a 65-year old student,” Freitag laughs. “When I talked about JFK (the student said) ‘yes, I remember that”. And I said, ‘Tell us what you remember, because I wasn’t alive then.’”
Freitag is one of several local teachers who work 40 hours a week for a Kansas-accredited program called Insight School of Kansas (ISKS), a K12 Inc.-powered online public school. Some 800 Kansas students grades 7-12 are enrolled in the program; more than 100,000 students nationwide are working towards a diploma through on-line studies.
Students who graduate from the program receive a Kansas-accredited diploma from Insight School, which is based in Olathe. Teachers must be Kansas-certified and have at least three years of regular classroom teaching experience.
‘Interact with students more’ Freitag was a member of the last graduating class at Chester-Hubbell. A farmer with class Online Kansas accredited high school lets Freitag combine farm, teaching careers Byron High School in 2001. He decided to attend Juniata College, in Pennsylvania, a small liberal arts college near where his mother grew up.
There he met his wife, Stacey, taught high school social studies for six years, and earned a masters degree in education.
Then the Freitags decided to move to the Midwest, so he could help in his family’s farm operation near Byron. His dad works full-time for Reinke Manufacturing. Along with corn and soybeans, the Freitags grow popcorn for commercial sales. In 2015 Nate and Stacey decided to put their own label on some of the popcorn grown on their family farm, and Free Day (the translation of Freitag in German) Popcorn was born. They also operate that business from their home in Belleville.
Freitag says the opportunity to teach from home “is not freedom, but flexibility”. “It allows me to farm and to be at home more with my daughters and attend their events,” he says. “But you’ve still got to do the job.”
The “not freedom, but flexibility” model applies to his students as well. All 150 of his students have Individualized Learning Plans. He talks to each student at least once a month, and sometimes more, as well as with their family members.
“I find myself talking to students more than when I taught brick and mortar school in Pennsylvania,” he says. “It’s a great option, but it might not be best fit for everybody. The organizational skills students have to develop is really a challenge for some.”
Many of the students take six or seven subjects online. Like brick and mortar school, their attendance, participation, and completion of homework assignments is strictly monitored. Like public school, the online education is free for Kansas students.
“We meet like a college model,” Freitag says. “We meet for live class a couple times a week, have help sessions and office hours. I deliver online video, audio, and there’s an online meeting room.” Students are invited to gather face-to-face several times a year — Insight Schools Kansas even has prom.
What the virtual classroom doesn’t have, Freitag says, is the discipline problems that teachers often deal with in a traditional classroom. If a student makes an inappropriate comment, he can mute them with the touch of a mouse.
The number of students who earn diplomas online will likely grow in the future, Freitag says. “We know technology is not going to play a smaller role in education in the future,” he says. “Even students in brick and mortar schools use iPads and laptops for assignments.
“With (Insight Kansas) we can track so much data: how much time students spend on their writing assignments or doing their homework. “The biggest challenge we have (with online school): attendance and tardies,” he says. “The biggest problem we had when I taught school in Pennsylvania: attendance and tardies.”
For Freitag, the ability to combine teaching and agriculture and spend more time with his wife and three daughters “is a game changer”.
“I could not farm and start a value-added business like Free Day Popcorn and teach in a brick and mortar school the same hours, with students from 7:30 to 3:30,” he says. During harvest, he can arrange his work schedule to be at the farm. He can attend a professional development meeting from his tractor. When his daughter was born early and spent several weeks in the neonatal intensive care unit, Freitag’s class came along with him.
“I would have had to take a leave of absence from a regular school,” he says.
“It’s not for everybody who wants to teach,” he says. “But it’s a type of school system that functions on a much smaller budget–they don’t have to provide lunch, sports teams, and transportation.
“It eliminates a lot of additional cost.”