Lost in the crowd no longer

Jessica reviews an assignment corrected by a teacher.
Jessica sitting at her computer revising an assignment graded by a teacher. Photo courtesy of Jessica Langevin
My parents have their own account where they can see not only if I’m behind but my grades. This is both a gift and a curse because my mom knows what lessons I’m avoiding, but she’s also always there to help out.

Switching to online school helped Jessica find her voice

Instead of standing outside at 7 a.m. in the freezing cold for a school bus, I’m still in bed. While other high school students are in their second hour of class, I’m just getting up, making my brother and sister breakfast and sometimes watching an episode of Scooby Doo.

That’s because I go to an online high school, Minnesota Connections Academy.

What is online school like?

My school day starts when I boot up my computer around 10 a.m. I can do my schoolwork any time, because as long as I put in 30 hours of work per week, I can turn my homework in before the semester ends and get full credit.

My academic world lives in a computer. The only time I have class with students and a teacher is during “LiveLessons,” when students go to a teacher’s website at a specific time to review what we’ll cover that week. If you miss it, you can watch it later online.

A “LiveLesson room” is like a teacher writing on a blackboard, except it’s a computer screen and you don’t actually see your teachers, but you can hear their voice. Students can talk to each other and ask the teacher questions in a chat pod.

And, yes, LiveLessons are like bricks-and-mortar classrooms in that there is always one kid who’s talking about something completely off-topic.

That kind of student was one reason I looked into alternative schooling.

Why do I go to an online high school?

I’ve always been the quiet type. When I was at Orono Middle School, I wasn’t a straight A student, but I wasn’t failing either. For some reason, I often found myself lost in the crowd.

After years of working on homework day and night and still not having the grades to show for it, I decided it was time to try something else.

My online school’s curriculum is more challenging, but the feedback I receive from teachers, flexibility to learn at my own pace, and being able to see all my assignments on a monthly calendar helped me go from earning mostly Bs and Cs to earning straight As. I’m now ranked fourth in my class.

My mom can see when every assignment is done, or isn’t

“This is my GradeBook, which is updated
immediately after I submit an assignment.
The only time I don’t get immediate feedback
is on essays that need to be graded by the
teacher, rather than automatically by a computer
program. And before you judge me on that D in
English, let me explain. At this point in the
semester, I’d only submitted one assignment
and got two out of three points.”
— Jessica Langevin

An online program tracks my assignments. I have a homepage that shows my assignments for the day, links to school email that we use to contact teachers and other students, and my grade book. My grade book tells me all my current grades on assignments, quizzes and tests. Most get graded immediately.

You may think all that flexibility would make it easy for me to procrastinate until a week before the semester ends, but I can’t. I have to finish an assignment before I can see the next one.

That gives me a reason not to put off hard assignments, or I could quickly find myself seven lessons behind. State law also requires I complete at least 30 hours of work per week.

My parents have their own account where they can see not only if I’m behind but my grades. This is both a gift and a curse because my mom knows what lessons I’m avoiding, but she’s also always there to help out.

My teachers aren’t in the room with me, but I get more one-on-one time

My school is a free, public charter school run by a national company. It has online schools in 23 states, including Minnesota, and one nation-wide school. It customizes curriculum to meet each state’s education standards. Federal and state government fund my school.

Each state’s school operates an office where a principal, guidance counselors and teachers work. Students go to the same building to take graduation and assessment tests.

Teens might think that because I go to an online school, I don’t have close relationships with my teachers, but I have more one-on-one time with my teachers than I did when I went to Orono Middle School. Not only do I see them frequently during field trips, but I can always contact them through webmail, phone, and LiveLessons.

Online school does have more independent work. But my school offers students ways to work in groups, for those who prefer that. I always felt lost when working on group projects at Orono.

I was either having to do all the work, or I wanted to help but another student wouldn’t let anybody else chime in. Online, we have class discussions once in a while, but nobody can get by on other people’s work.

How do I have friends if I don’t go to regular high school?

Teens are often curious about my social life – if I have one since I don’t go to school with a bunch of teenagers. It’s true that some of the people I was friends with in middle school drifted away, but I expect that would have happened even if I had stayed. My true friends stuck around.

The ones who faded away were quickly replaced with new people I’ve met through my online school and other activities like ThreeSixty Journalism and local theater. There’s a whole new depth in a friendship when you’ve both consciously chosen it, rather than the kind that develops just because you share the same space.

No one calls me “Barbie” anymore

Going to an online school has changed me in surprising ways. It’s allowed me time alone with my thoughts to get to know who I am. I don’t care so much about what other people want me to be.

In middle school, other kids called me “plastic” and would call out “Barbie” or “Pinkie” just to see if I would respond. I was so used to it that I always did. Yeah, I was kind of shallow. But when I left that environment I realized that’s not who I am at all.

I know online school isn’t for everyone. I’ve had a really great experience, which I think is due to my personality and learning style but also the online school I chose.

Just like with bricks-and-mortar schools, not all online schools are the same. If you’re thinking of going to an online high school, make sure you check out it out first. If it’s a private school, make sure it’s accredited by an organization approved by the Minnesota Department of Education. The state certifies public online schools like mine. To find out what schools have been vetted by the state, check out Ty Heimerl’s story about the increasing popularity of online learning.

Since there is no specific place for me to go to learn, I’m more open to learning wherever I can. I have the confidence to speak up when I’m stuck. Before I would have suffered in silence. I feel so lucky to be living in a time when we have so many educational options.

Going to online school has given me the ability to get better grades, and helped me develop a strong voice. As I prepare to graduate this spring, I fully grasp how important those skills are, especially as I move into the adult world.