On the verge of quitting: Virtual schools offer high school students a second chance

Before the rise in online learning and virtual public schools, there were few options for students dealing with health and family issues, bullying, learning disabilities or struggling in a traditional school. If parents weren’t equipped to teach them at home or their local district didn’t have an alternative education program, many would fall through the cracks and end up quitting school. 

Virtual and blended schools aren’t the answer for every student, but they have become a viable option in the quest to address the complex issues facing today’s students and families. While some students may use a supplemental online provider like Michigan Virtual School to retake failed classes and catch up on credits, other students find success in 100 percent virtual environments.   

The victim of bullying in her middle school in Pontiac, Michigan, Shieanne Griffin, 17, transferred to the brick-and-mortar charter school Michigan School for the Arts for ninth grade. But when the school decided not to expand to grades 10-12, Griffin found herself on the verge of dropping out until a teacher and mentor suggested K12 Inc.’s Michigan Virtual Charter Academy.   

Griffin is now excelling in the home-based, online learning environment and, between the bullying, learning disabilities and medical issues, says it has saved her from becoming a statistic. 

“I like being in my pajamas at class,” she says. “All the teachers are so amazing it makes me actually want to do schoolwork. I have learning disabilities and dyslexia, and they’re the first teachers I’ve had that are compatible with my needs.” 

Griffin is not alone in opting for an online learning option over physically attending school. These trends are happening on a national level as well.

The national impact

October is National Dropout Prevention Month and experts from across the nation convened in Detroit for the National Dropout Prevention Network Conference. There, K12’s Director of Program Management Laurel Barrette presented on an innovative K12 initiative designed to identify students at risk for dropping out and give them the tools to succeed using a holistic and strengths-based approach.

This initiative is called the Family Academic Support Team which is an integrated student support services model that empowers students to overcome challenges — be they academic, social, emotional, medical or otherwise — to succeed in school and beyond. Students and families receive early intervention, support services, case management and connection to school- and community-based resources. 

Resources can include grief support or mental health counseling, referrals for housing, food assistance and other services, academic support for students, parents and learning coaches, and extra help with attendance, accountability and compliance issues to prevent truancy and improve student retention and success. 
“It has a lot of implications for dropout prevention,” says Barrette.  “As soon as the student is having an issue or not engaging — whether it’s mental health issues, a death in the family or illness — there’s a referral. There are several people who do this active case management and work with students and parents to get them back on track.”

FAST started in one school and has expanded to K12 schools across the nation, including Michigan Virtual Charter Academy and Michigan Great Lakes Virtual Academy. 

“I’m excited and proud about the investment we’ve made as an organization and looking at how we better serve at-risk students,” Barrette says. “This program is expensive, but it’s a natural investment.”

Battling the stigma behind dropouts

Now a passionate supporter of helping students stay in school, Barrette speaks from experience. Growing up, Barrette found herself in the foster care system, moving around a lot and even homeless. 

She quit school at 15 and earned her GED. At 21, she enrolled in college and said it was difficult as a high school dropout, but she persevered and completed her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. 

Barrette has worked as a certified teacher and counselor in virtual and brick-and-mortar settings at the middle and high school levels in California, Arizona, and Virginia. She also worked in residential treatment with at-risk adolescents and has presented nationally on suicide prevention, virtual school counseling, and bullying.

“It’s not just about online education, but having a wide range of options that are going to support students in a lot of different ways,” Barrette says. “We do provide a safe haven for a lot of kids who have been previously bullied or have social anxiety. Our students report exceptionally low levels of bullying.”

Barrette also understands the far-reaching implications for high school dropouts and society. Studies show dropouts have higher unemployment, lower earning potential over a lifetime, higher incarceration rates, more health problems and shorter life expectancies.
The decision to quit school is a process, Barrette says, and the FAST program serves students in all grades. At-risk students often show signs in elementary school and it snowballs when attendance, grades and credits start to count in high school. 

Some students like the anonymity, independence and flexibility of working online. She has experienced students who are way more likely to open up over instant messaging or text messages than face-to-face conversations. 

It also helps them work around part-time jobs or health, transportation and family issues like teenage pregnancy or caring for sick parents. 

“With dropouts, there’s a lot of implicit bias; people think it’s a character issue,” she says. “But if you look at the evidence of why people make this choice, we have to have an open mind and be committed to exploring all of these different alternatives and reimagining what education can look like.”

Personalizing education

For some students, online education may be temporary or a way to catch up for a semester. But others actually prefer that style of learning to sitting in a regular classroom all day. Many kids feel helpless, hopeless and disengaged and just need someone to reach out and believe in them. 

“Your typical large, comprehensive high school leaves a lot of people out,” Barrette says. “Just like brick and mortar, it’s all about that relationship at the end of the day. What’s going to keep them coming back and engaged is if they feel like there is someone who cares about them.”

It’s that human connection that got tenth-grader Griffin to the positive learning environment she’s in now.

Carrie Johnson, a teacher at Michigan Virtual Charter Academy, saw Griffin in the principal’s office one day and reached out to her at Michigan School for the Arts. Johnson encouraged Griffin to try the online school and now stays in regular contact with her. 

“She was ready to give up and wasn’t going to continue with high school,” Johnson says. “She’s a smart girl and this school fits her perfectly. I can’t believe the turnaround and what this online school has done for her.”

MVCA is an online charter school authorized by Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, but Johnson says she has students from across the state, many of them living in rural areas. Others have been bullied or don’t feel safe in their inner city schools.

“I think it’s a great option for students,” Johnson says. “I have students who live on farms and the parents can run the business, and the kids can go to school. I also have students with medical issues that use online learning as a great alternative for getting a good education.”

Marla R. Miller is an award-winning journalist, veteran education reporter and professional writer who lives in West Michigan. Connect with her at http://marlarmiller.com/ or https://www.facebook.com/MarlaRMillerwriter. 

This story is part of a series on online education in Michigan. Support for this series is provided by Michigan Virtual University."