KATHLEEN HARMON: School that works

Originally published in Arkansas Democrat Gazette – August 10, 2020

My daughter Christine has had an extraordinarily exciting and busy summer. She’s learning Java and other coding and programming skills in an online video game design program offered through Duke University. Christine is also one of only 20 students participating in a coveted summer STEM program in which she’s learning how to write a technical paper. As if that’s not enough, she is even preparing to take an intensive drone-focused workshop at a local college where she’ll learn how to build her own drone, study flight control and safety, and hone flying skills.

Maybe for some parents of driven, high-achieving students, Christine’s summer plans aren’t anything out of the ordinary. But for me, this summer is an experience I never thought my daughter would or could ever have. You see, the Christine I describe to you today isn’t the same person she was just three years ago. I want you to know that online school is the catalyst that sparked her transformation.

Christine is a gifted student who also has special needs. In our school district, we refer to this as “twice exceptional.” For years, school administrators told me this kind of student just “doesn’t exist.” They were wrong, and it cost my daughter dearly.

When Christine was in first grade, our local public school refused to provide accommodations that would address her dyslexia. And after a few years of her needs not being met in a traditional school setting or a private Christian school, Christine developed nervous tics.

Finally, after a therapist suggested that we try online school, Christine enrolled in Arkansas Virtual Academy. Our lives haven’t been the same since.

The online learning experience has been a game-changer for Christine. My once-withdrawn child who was often terrified of asking teachers for help isn’t afraid to reach out to a teacher anymore or advocate for herself. Every teacher treats her with kindness and love, and they’ve tailored a program that addresses her strengths yet supports her unique learning needs and disabilities.

Every parent wants what’s best for their children, but many families simply aren’t getting the best. What is best for Christine is a tailor-made education that fits her specific learning styles.

Unfortunately, she wasn’t getting this in a traditional school environment. For the most part, her traditional classes attempted to meet the needs of all students simultaneously. Her teachers were doing their best, but often did not have enough time to teach the class and give each student the personalized attention they needed. The firm schedules and curriculum often left advanced students bored, while other kids continued to struggle. Also, poor note-takers like Christine were often left behind.

The online school experience has been much different for us. Christine meets with her teachers one-on-one at least one to two times a week, which leaves plenty of time for individualized help. Each lesson is recorded so she can re-watch them if she needs to. And when she completes a lesson early, Christine can move on to another subject. She also has the flexibility to complete her assignments when she is at her best each day, instead of having to stick to a firm class schedule.

By the end of her first year in online school, Christine was a top student in her eighth-grade math cohort. This past year, in addition to special education English, she took two honors math classes as part of the advanced learners program. This fall, she’s poised to take additional honors classes and college-level courses at Arkansas State University as part of the school’s dual enrollment program.

For most of us, the coronavirus pandemic hit our lives like a freight train.

I was able to transition my full-time computer job responsibilities to work from home easily, but many parents, schools, and teachers were thrust into online learning pretty much overnight, with very little time or preparation. Students and their families grew more and more frustrated with online learning because many school districts didn’t have the specially trained online instructors that Christine has. Understandably frustrated teachers tried to use the same in-person methods to teach online, which does not work. And many students across the country didn’t or still don’t have access to tailored online lessons–which include an interactive curriculum, dynamic videos, and engaging activities–coupled with the kind of personalized learning experience that Christine thrives in.

I know we’re only a short while away from the beginning of another school year. No doubt, this one will be very different from the rest. But my hope is that school districts and leaders are hard at work putting the finishing touches on their own online learning options, keeping tried and true online learning methodologies in mind.

I also hope that parents across the country will give online learning another shot instead of a failing grade. Their kids deserve the same levels of success that Christine continues to have.

Kathleen Harmon’s daughter attends the online Arkansas Virtual Academy where she’s a straight-A student. Her name has been changed to protect her identity.

To learn more about Arkansas Virtual Academy, visit https://arva.k12.com/

Featured Articles