Originally published in USA Today – March 1, 2018
Despite the stardom of her own reality TV show, transgender 17-year-old Jazz Jennings feels immensely isolated at school and has asked her parents to consider enrolling her in a virtual, online school. In a recent episode of I Am Jazz, TLC’s hit show, Jazz admitted to regularly feeling miserable without any friends and eating lunch alone in the bathroom. She feels it’s time to make a change.
Many transgender students walk the halls of our country’s schools feeling isolated, left out and bullied. This social ostracism has dangerous consequences — a New York Civil Liberties Union report found 50% of transgender students avoid school regularly and suffer disproportionately high dropout rates.
Three out of every four transgender students feel unsafe at school, according to a GLSEN survey; those who are able to attend sometimes struggle with lower GPAs and are less likely to continue their education beyond high school. For numerous youth in the transgender community, it’s clear that the traditional school model isn’t working.
Like Jazz, many students feel lost in a system that doesn’t serve them. And it’s not only transgender students. As a lifelong advocate for quality education, most recently at K12 Inc., a provider of online curriculum and school programs, I’ve met countless families in urban and rural school districts alike who wish their children had options to fit their diverse needs. Some are high-performing athletes, special needs students, young business entrepreneurs, students with disabilities or extreme medical circumstances, victims of incessant bullying or students from military families who frequently move.
Unlike Jazz, however, many of them don’t know of a way out, leading to an American dropout rate of one student every 26 seconds.
Every child is different, with unique circumstances, talents and abilities. One-size-fits-all doesn’t suit all students. For these students, a lack of school choice can feel like a prison sentence, forcing them to serve out the rest of their term or drop out. We need to broaden parents’ school choice options so education works for all students.
It’s important to note that expanding school choice isn’t about abolishing traditional schools — many families, if not most, will determine that traditional school settings are best for their children. But the millions of students for whom traditional school isn’t working deserve access to an education that will serve their needs, whether that’s in a public magnet school, charter school, home-school, affordable private school or public online school.
Jazz revealed she is considering an online school, which is becoming an increasingly popular alternative for students who don’t thrive in the one-size-fits-all model. These aren’t home school or private programs, but tuition-free public schools with dedicated teachers offering customized learning programs online. With increased flexibility, students ranging from kindergarten to 12th grade attend virtual classrooms, collaborate with other students and complete assignments both on and off the screen.
-Kevin P. Chavous, an attorney, author, education reform activist and president of academics, policy and schools for K12 Inc. He served as a member of the Council of the District of Columbia from January 1993 to January 2005.