Originally published Hometown Life– June 22, 2018
Big dreams come in all shapes and sizes.
Perhaps the goal is to become a pediatric neurosurgeon. Only thing is, with your family homeless for several months, being able to keep up with classwork might be a major thorn.
You could be a no-nonsense Boy Scout wanting to leave a humane imprint at a nearby nature center to protect endangered owls.
Or your goal might be to score plenty of them someday in the National Hockey League. To get there will require major training, on and off the ice.
Traditional brick-and-mortar schools might have put a roadblock in front of those endeavors.
Blake McClellan, Wyatt Lucas and Alex Cannon all are on their way, thanks to online schools and technology that enables them to go with the educational flow while having schedule flexibility and enough freedom to do what they love, too.
To the summit
“It’s like trying to climb a mountain and getting blown back down to the bottom and keep trying to climb the same mountain and finally reach the top,” McClellan, 18, said following Michigan Virtual Charter Academy’s graduation June 15 at Suburban Collection Showcase in Novi. “It’s kind of that euphoric moment where I’m staring out from the summit.”
Michigan Virtual Charter Academy is a tuition-free public school that receives just over $7,000 per pupil in state funding. McClellan was at the top of the class of 2018, which had about 200 students from all over the state.
McClellan, a Monroe resident, graduated as class valedictorian with a 4.05 grade-point average. But if not for the chance to learn online, he might have dropped out a couple of years ago. He had been bullied at his old school and needed to re-boot somewhere else.
Exacerbating his journey was the fact his family became homeless for five months, just in time for the start of senior year.
His dad Chris lost his job as a postal worker due to a car accident that totaled his vehicle. The McClellans now are renting an apartment; thanks to online school, transportation to and from physical schools is not an issue.
“I wasn’t able to do anything enjoyable for the first half due to being in a shelter,” McClellan said. “We were homeless for five months, so I didn’t get to have much of a senior year to enjoy. We were pretty much in survival mode.”
In order to keep up with his coursework, he needed to walk to and from a library located a mile away from the shelter. And don’t forget extra trips to and from lunch and dinner.
“They had no fun, there’s no TV,” said Tomica McClellan, Blake’s mom. “So when we were at the library, he struggled, because that’s when he’d go on the Internet and try to watch YouTube or watch something fun.
“He didn’t want to do school because he was so stressed with everything. He wanted to have the fun that we can’t have anytime but there, but the problem is that was supposed to be school time. … He was so depressed and we were all feeling so hopeless.”
The situation was nowhere near as daunting for Lucas or Cannon, both students during 2017-18 in the Michigan Connections Academy — another “virtual” way to fit books and reports into busy, demanding schedules. MICA is based in Okemos; students and teachers interact via emails and chats.
Lucas, 15 and a nature-minded Troy resident, is rolling up his sleeves to raise money that would be earmarked for construction of a structure that he wants to build at Stage Nature Center, located a mile or so from his home.
The structure would be 38 feet wide — as big as a two-car garage — and cost upward of $20,000 to build and provide upkeep for injured owls such as Sam, a barn owl.
“I just thought of helping out; I asked the nature center if they needed anything,” said Lucas, also a member of Boy Scout Troop 1036 out of Kirk in the Hills Church in Bloomfield Hills. “We met with Christina (Funk, of Stage Nature Center) and she said there are these five owls there that needed help.
“I said I could do a fundraiser for that. … Most owls have a 20-year or longer lifespan. There are tons of different owls and a few more ideas of what they do, how they raise their young and so forth.”
The teen is doing a lot of the dirty work, collecting cans and bottles and meeting with groups such as the Rotary or Kiwanis clubs to help make the project happen.
But just as important is schedule flexibility, thanks to his attending Michigan Connections Academy — rather than going to a physical school with typical hours to deal with.
“I don’t know how he could have done it without going to Michigan Connections Academy,” said Gail Lucas, Wyatt’s mom. “Because a lot of what he’s doing in terms of getting word out — he’s gone to the Rotary — all this stuff has to happen during the day, when the people are having their meetings. So if he was in a traditional brick-and-mortar school, he would not be able to do any of that.”
She stressed that with classes prerecorded for consumption, Michigan Connections students can log in and get to work without missing any of their projects, hobbies or other interests.
“They are (live) online classes during the day,” Gail Lucas said. “But if the kids can’t make them, they are all recorded so that if he’s at a meeting or fundraising for an event, he can go back and watch the recording of a lesson that he missed. We just would not have been able to juggle everything he’s doing with a brick-and-mortar school, because of the time constraints.”
Funk, assistant naturalist at Stage Nature Center in Troy, handles owls that cannot be returned to their natural habitat. Currently, they are housed in makeshift cages, but through the efforts of Lucas and others, plans are progressing to build a permanent home on the grounds.
“These are owls that have been in captivity for a while. They came from the Organization for Bat Conservation that closed in February,” Funk said. “I used to work for that organization and they were trying to find homes.”
Cost to build the structure has been estimated at $20,000; so far Lucas has generated about $7,400 for the cause — through donations and his Save the Owls bottle drive.
He’s on task
Cannon, 18, of Canton prefers his life to go in a direct path, the kind being a Michigan Connections student affords him.
The program is instrumental in his two-pronged quest to get a degree from an Ivy League university while launching a professional hockey career.
“I kind of learned that everything is based on how bad I want it and my own responsibility of basically improving myself,” said Cannon, who just finished his senior year. “If I want to get better in the classroom, then I need to focus my energy on my schoolwork.
“If I want to get better on the ice, then I need to put all my energy out there. So whatever category I’m struggling in, I just got to put more energy into that and not slack.”
Cannon decided he needed to ramp up his skills enough to get the attention of teams in the North American Hockey League (a Tier II major junior circuit).
So he skated mornings and afternoons at Viking Ice Arena in Hazel Park, a 50-minute drive from his parents’ home. Games and tournaments were played for Victory Honda in Canton, a AAA travel program.
In early June, he was drafted by the Helena (Mont.) Bighorns of the NA3HL, essentially a feeder for the NAHL, but continues to eye summer camps with a shot at the upper league.
The acclaimed Total Package Hockey program was located at Viking during 2017-18 (it is relocating to Bloomfield Hills), with players easily moving between rink and mobile classrooms in the adjacent parking lot.
“I found out about it when I was looking for a place to go to school around here,” Cannon said. “When I came to Total Package Hockey, (Michigan Connections) was their main program.”
Most of the time, Cannon could skate and learn at the same location. But when it came time for Victory Honda tournaments, he could simply bring his laptop along with his hockey gear.
“This is just a school and everyone comes here, though they’re all on different teams and different ages,” Cannon said. “So when I go off with my team, I just bring my computer and I can work at it at hotels, just use the Wi-Fi there.
“It really allows me to be flexible and be able to focus on hockey.”
Breaking it down
For Cannon, getting to his ultimate hockey destination is a one-shift-at-a-time proposition.
McClellan’s mission to be class valedictorian came down to taking care of one assignment at a time, especially during his family’s homeless period.
That’s when some “tough love” from AP government teacher Ruth Marzolo virtually saved him from not getting to where he wanted to go.
“I just shut down, about everything,” McClellan said, recalling his malaise. “I kind of just sat there not wanting to do anything anymore. It took until my teacher gave me a call, gave me that ultimatum of, I either start buckling down and get going, otherwise I won’t succeed.”
Marzolo put it bluntly to her star pupil.
“I knew how well Blake was capable of performing, because I’d had him (his junior year),” Marzolo said. “I noticed him drop off his senior year. I called him up and found out what was going on.
“At the time I was living in Oklahoma, he would call me on my cellphone. I said, ‘Hey look, Blake, how do you eat an elephant?’ You don’t see him through the phone just stumped. I said, ‘Blake you just do it one bite at a time. You can do this. You just got to start small, do one small thing. Turn in one assignment and that turns to two and that’s going to turn to three. But you just got to decide that you’re going to do it.’
“It was just saying I believe in him, because I knew he could do it. … He just ran with it.”
ABOUT THE STUDENTS
Blake McClellan: The 18-year-old Monroe resident graduated as valedictorian (4.05 grade-point average) from Michigan Virtual Charter Academy. He dropped out of his former school during sophomore year after teammates on his swim team bullied him. McClellan is considering going to Oral Roberts University or the University of Toledo, studying either pre-med or pre-law.
Wyatt Lucas: The 15-year-old Troy resident enrolled in Michigan Connections Academy primarily because he wanted schedule flexibility to volunteer to various nature-related pursuits. One of those is intensive fundraising and planning, helping Stage Nature Center build a structure to house injured owls. He also is a member of Boy Scout Troop 1036 in Bloomfield Hills, and wants to become an Eagle Scout.
Alex Cannon: A Canton resident, the 18-year-old Cannon signed up to study through Michigan Connections Academy in order to skate during morning and afternoon hours in the acclaimed Total Package Hockey program, based during 2017-18 in Hazel Park. In addition, he competed last season for Canton’s Victory Honda and recently was drafted to play for a junior team in Montana, but he is continuing to weigh future options for college and hockey. An honors student, he finished high school with a 4.58 GPA.
ABOUT THE SCHOOLS
MICA: Michigan Connections Academy a public, tuition-free K-12 program located near Lansing, gives students “the flexibility to learn at home with a curriculum that meets rigorous state education standards. Our mission is to help each student maximize his or her potential and meet the highest performance standards through a uniquely individualized learning program.”
MVCA: Michigan Virtual Charter Academy is a public online school, located in Grand Rapids. But students all over the state learn wherever they can hook up a computer.
According to the academy website, MVCA “accesses the extensive K12 Inc. high school curriculum portfolio of core and elective courses, including Math, English/Language Arts, Science, History/Social Sciences, and more.”
Nate Davis, CEO and Chairman at K12 Inc. (located in Virginia), said organization “remains steadfast in our dedication to the education community at large. We know that to best serve students, we must be a trusted partner to school boards in delivering a full student experience. From a rigorous academic curriculum, to socialization opportunities including proms, chess clubs, debate clubs, and other activities short of athletics, we help school boards tailor a personalized learning experience that they feel will work best for their students, always with a relentless focus on academic success and educational excellence.”
Links and info
To find out how to help Lucas with his July 7 bottle drive to help raise money for an owl house at Stage Nature Center in Troy, email him at Wyattwilliamlucas@aol.com or follow his fundraiser page on Facebook. The bottle drive will be held at 5612 Fawn Court in Troy. Also go to troynaturesociety.org and choose “Owl Fund” to donate. The bottle drive is from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
To learn more about Michigan Virtual Charter Academy, visit mvca.k12.com.