Originally published in The Wake Weekly – August 18, 2018
By Neva Yinger
WAKE FOREST — “Sixth grade was just rough,” recalls Olivia Wilkerson.
While many people remember the start of middle school as a particularly unpleasant phase of their childhood, Olivia had more challenges than most during that pivotal academic year.
Olivia is visually impaired (VI), and after a few bumpy years at Durant Road Elementary, her parents decided to pull her out of the public school system.
Olivia and her mom Traci Wilkerson say that she struggled socially in elementary school, and didn’t gain the independence she would need in middle school and beyond.
“Each VI student had an individual braillist, they would they would always sit behind us during class,” explains Olivia. “We didn’t get to talk with classmates much because they were always hovering, and they’d limit us, if (my brother) Evan and I wanted to play with other kids they’d be like ‘You could get hurt, that’s dangerous.’”
Olivia and Evan (who is also visually impaired though less severely than Olivia) also faced extra academic challenges at school. Though Wilkerson notes thankfully that they inherited her “math brain” and don’t struggle with the visually intensive aspects of math the way many blind students do, they were often expected to work through the VI department at school, making it hard to bond with teachers.
“Whenever I didn’t understand something, say in math, it’s not the braille it’s just the concept but it would be the VI department teaching me, not my teachers,” Olivia says. “So I never really got the connection with my teachers.”
Traci said she and her husband Gene then decided to try something new. Evan and Olivia weren’t chosen by lotteries for any of the brick-and-mortar charter schools in the area, but they heard about the North Carolina Virtual Academy from the family of another VI student.
The school is fully online, but it’s still a tuition-free public school like other charters. And since it’s still a public school, the system provides some additional services to Evan and Olivia.
The Wilkersons like the flexibility and independence of virtual schooling, but there was a steep learning curve. “In elementary school I knew nothing about a computer and then to be told I’m going to be schooled only on the computer — how the heck am I going to do that?” Olivia recalls thinking.
But despite technology hiccups and frustrations aplenty, Evan and Olivia, now in sixth and eighth grade, are adjusted to online schooling and enjoying the approach. Wilkerson is a braillist, and helps translate assignments into braille when the specially designed technologies they use aren’t enough. As time goes on the kids get more independent and need less braille to accomplish their work.
“I think the best thing is the level of independence, they are personally responsible for their education,” said Wilkerson. “Last year I saw a lot of personal improvement and growth in Olivia — it was nice to see her make that growth and really own her education.”
When Olivia describes her typical school day, it’s hard to believe she’s going to middle school online rather than college. She says she checks email first thing, makes a list of tasks for the day, participates in “live” classes via a streaming platform, studies for and takes quizzes and works on major projects a little each day. Wilkerson is involved with some braille translating and checking work, and is responsible for logging attendance as per state education requirements.
“We’re the learning coach who’s supposed to guide them and make sure they’re doing their work, and we have to be involved for
technical glitches,” says Wilkerson.
Being able to accomplish their schoolwork in a home setting speeds school up and leaves the Wilkerson kids more time to pursue their passions and explore the world.
“[Traditional school] was just too distracting,” says Evan.
“You have more time to do other stuff, if you want to download an app or learn a language or do other things,” says Olivia.
Evan says that one of his favorite things about going to school online is that it makes it easy for him and his sister to go to camps that would overlap with typical school calendars.
The two are avid surfers, attending a camp for VI kids, and they’ve enjoyed an annual space camp so much that they both hope to work for NASA someday.
Wilkerson says the camp experiences are critically important for Olivia and Evan — while any child benefits from enrichment activities, Olivia and Evan particularly need hands-on opportunities.
“They’re not going to understand unless they get their hands in it,” Wilkerson says
The Wilkersons have also found the flexibility of virtual schooling to be a boon to their swimming careers. They swim with the Granite Falls Makos and travel to meets across the country getting to know and competing against other blind swimmers.
“You don’t have to be in a classroom from eight a.m. to three p.m. so if I have swim from 10:30-11 a.m. and I don’t have any live classes then I can go,” says Olivia.
They also have the flexibility to work ahead in their classes if a swim meet comes up during the school year, rather than missing school and falling behind.
For Olivia, swimming has been a huge confidence booster.
“Swimming was the thing where I felt like I can do this, and nobody can tell me I can’t,” says Olivia. “I’m going to prove it by going to the paralympics and being a great swimmer, not sitting at home thinking I can’t do anything because I can’t see.”
To learn more about North Carolina Virtual Academy, visit https://ncva.k12.com/.