Originally published in the Manistee News Advocate – September 20, 2019
Michigan Great Lakes Virtual Academy (MGLVA) head of school Kendall Schroeder will be the first one to admit that in the school’s student body of 3,125 there are many who need assistance in their academic pursuits.
However, seven years after coming into existence and becoming Manistee County’s largest school, the staff at MGLVA has come up with many unique educational support systems that often make them the envy of traditional brick and mortar schools.
As more families consider the positive options of educating their children in an online K-12 school with the passing of each year, MGLVA is seeing a rise in their success level with students that tells them they are moving in the right direction to meet those needs.
Schroeder admits that when staff members don’t see a student face-to-face on a daily basis they have to seek other methods to build that school-student bond, and they have come up with a plan that works.
“Many of those students come to us because they are struggling in the traditional brick and mortar schools, but many still struggle when they get to us,” said Schroeder. “Every students is assigned a teacher at their home and they work with that teacher in online sessions every day, but each one of our students has an adviser assigned to them. That adviser is like that middle person connector who helps build relationships between the teacher and the student.”
The curriculum they purchase comes from the online educational curriculum company K12 and each student is given a laptop to work with from home. It is curriculum designed specifically for online courses and to meet the needs for these type of students. Elementary level students are usually in a 1 to 30 ratio with a teacher while high school is at 1 to 200 students.
“We actually bring the classroom to them, so K12 supplies the computers and provides the curriculum,” said Schroeder. “For some families who are looking for an option like this it is pretty amazing. They hire all of us to teach and run the school.”
He pointed out that if students begin to struggle academically that adviser is right there to find supports and resources in the area where help is needed. Sometimes the things that cause the problems may be the environment where the child is living.
“We have a dedicated resource coordinator that works in those communities and goes out to those areas to find resources for families that are struggling with internet, food, housing or other issues,” said Schroeder. “We have that dedicated team because we know a large population of students are dealing with that, so we have dedicated resources specifically to that team. I often think if traditional brick and mortar schools had a team like that they would be doing great things and maybe some of those kids wouldn’t be leaving their schools.”
Schroeder said that from their very first days they realized the need to build those relationships if they want student success.
“You really can’t get these kids to grow academically if you don’t build those relationships first,” said Schroeder. “So, our task is to know that family and know that student. One of the biggest things we hear from our students is like what one of our students in Marquette said to a television station about our school. She said she got to know her teachers in this online setting better than in a brick and mortar school.”
Something like that is hard to conceive sometimes Schroeder said, but that is because there are teachers are out there working all day long to know their students and the struggles they are facing on a daily basis.
He said late last year they started a new program that is really catching on with their students this year.
“We are also creating career and technical opportunities for our students,” said Schroeder. “One of things that brings to our students is they can take business and career tech courses and then do some hands-on opportunities or job shadowing in that field of study wherever they want to go. If they live in this area they might partner with one of the businesses in Manistee County to do some practical work base learning along with their studies. Our goal is to improve our face-to face opportunities and one of those is with the career tech classes.”
He pointed out that one day a month they send their teachers out to various places for a program they call Beacon Buddies where they get the chance to meet with teachers face-to-face.
“It is an opportunity to meet the families and students and we are doing one at Goodies Juice and Java,” said Schroeder. “It is a program that started small, but our goal is to get at least 50 percent of our students attending.”
Schroeder said they are excited about the prospects in that program because some of their students might get the opportunity to take a career and vocational education course at their brick and mortar school.
“We can do that and could go to the Upper Penninsula’s Baraga County and create a voc tech class for those students,” he said. “It’s an exciting adventure in that area and even though we don’t have support from the State of Michigan yet, we are working on it and (ISD superintendent) Dave (Cox) has been working on that with us, but they don’t know how to treat us and are working on a model for it.”
He added that their chartering agent, the Manistee Area Public Schools along with the relationship with the ISD, is going to strengthen everything they do.
“We feel like we are going to go on in this process as we are only seven years old,” said Schroeder. “We are learning a lot of things. Yes, we still are struggling academically. We were identified as a Comprehensive Support School due to our graduation rate. There are a lot of students that come to us who are transient. They come for a while and then go back to their traditional school, but we also have students who come to us as their last resort. But we have made great strides with it.”
Last year they had their largest graduation class ever with more than 200 students, and this year they have about 350 students at the senior level.
“We are making strides, so you know we are heading in the right direction,” he said.
Another academic area they have been working on is providing dual enrollment opportunities for their students.
“We do have students who are doing dual enrollment and some are doing it face-to-face, while some can be taken virtual as well,” said Schroeder. “We work with them on making that work.”
MGLVA board members Dave Ohman and Ron Villamaria said they firmly believe in the MGLVA program. However, Ohman said he would like to see the virtual schools in a different state category than the brick and mortar ones.
“We are blessed with a good staff and know a virtual school is not for everyone,” said Ohman. “The way we educate our students is quite interesting, but I would take all the virtual schools out of the ISD and put them in one that served only virtual schools so they could focus on their issues. I have attended our graduations and had parents and grandparents come up and thank us because their student was not cutting it in a traditional school and you provided an alternative to succeed.”
Villamaria added that the ISD and MGLVA is working together much better now. He also said his own personal experience with MGLVA is also helping him gain a better understanding each day of how an online school succeeds.
“This level of cooperation between our two organizations is unprecedented and we appreciate your support and look forward to working with you now and in the future,” said Villamaria. “I am experiencing a learning coach myself as one of my children has transitioned away from brick and mortar to MGLVA. So I am learning first hand that interaction with the student and teacher. I am seeing the interactivity that is possible and real online.”
To learn more about Michigan Great Lakes Virtual Academy, visit https://mglva.k12.com/