Online students meet for first time at graduation

The Insight School of Washington graduation ceremony last week began like any other — the graduates glided to their seats to “Pomp and Circumstance” while family and friends snapped candids furiously. But for many of the class, instead of hugging fellow seniors goodbye after the ceremony, they were meeting one another for the first time.

  • Monday, December 19, 2011 11:04am
  • News

The Insight School of Washington graduation ceremony last week began like any other — the graduates glided to their seats to “Pomp and Circumstance” while family and friends snapped candids furiously. But for many of the class, instead of hugging fellow seniors goodbye after the ceremony, they were meeting one another for the first time.

Insight School of Washington is a purely online public high school. Students from across the state take courses, interact with teachers and submit homework over the Internet. But since it’s a public high school, it’s technically part of a school district and funded through the state.

“We report to the superintendent and school board of the Quillayute Valley School District just as if we were located in Forks,” said Daniel Day, executive director of the school. “They are our bosses.”

The online school serves 1,300 students, officials said, with about 30 attending last week’s commencement ceremony held in the Lodge at Beaver Lake in Sammamish. This is Insight’s third year in operation in Washington, and it’s the first system of its kind in the country. Four states currently run Insight schools, with seven more slated to start in the fall.

Although they operate like a traditional school on the administrative level, the online aspect of Insight allows kids to take classes, from Advanced Placement to basic courses, on their own schedule.

Issaquah teen Miranda Bouwman took advantage of that flexibility. She maintained a part-time job and participated in theatrical productions while still attending high school.

“I would do shows after work, and I would fit school in in-between,” Bouwman said. “It still managed to work really well.”

The alternative learning methods were right up her alley as well.

“I never quite got the grades that I wanted in traditional high school,” Bouwman said. “But when I was able to do it on my own and figure out my own way of learning and my own way of handling my assignments, I did really well.”

Insight’s flexible schedule also helps students who are already parents.

Senior Kolby Carson of Kennewick, Wash., chose online education to spend more time with her 10-month-old baby.

“I chose Insight because it was a better opportunity to not only finish my vocational education, but to stay home with my son so I didn’t have to leave him in a nursery with people I didn’t know,” Carson said.

Eliminating the distraction of other kids helps students succeed as well, some said.

Port Angeles resident Aleta Schultz, mother of senior Daniel Schultz, said her son wouldn’t have received his diploma if he had remained enrolled at their local high school.

“He didn’t really fit in, so he dropped out of school,” Aleta Schultz said. “The Insight School was perfect for him because it let him work at his own pace, and he didn’t have to compete with other students.”

This meshes exactly with the aim of founder Keith Oelrich, who wanted to offer an alternative way to educate kids, said Insight School spokesperson Leigh Sims.

“He just wanted to make sure that there are options for students that aren’t as well served by traditional schools,” Sims said.

Insight Principal Greg Rayl has the same mindset.

“People learn in different ways,” Rayl said. “It’s just another way to reach out and help a student be successful in life.”

But just as some kids don’t thrive in a “brick-and-mortar” school, some wouldn’t do well having to constantly be their own motivator.

“It takes a lot of dedication and self-motivation to do this,” said Denise Foster, mother of senior Jen Foster. “It’s not something every kid can do.”

Teachers often struggle to push kids to complete their assignments on time.

“The biggest challenge is not letting kids fall into the procrastination trap,” said Tammy Kruger, a teacher at Insight.

Even though teachers don’t get to encourage their students face-to-face, the online atmosphere lets them spend more one-on-one time with each individual.

“One thing about online is teachers develop a lot closer personal relationships with their students and vice versa,” Kruger said.

Carson emphasized that point, too.

“We heard more from the teachers at Insight than during my entire three years at a public high school,” Carson said.

Students can e-mail or call their teachers to ask questions, or go to weekly office hours held in virtual classrooms. On these Web pages, teachers post information on a graphic of a white board in a format similar to a PowerPoint slide. The entire class converses using headsets, but students must press an on-screen button and wait their turn to speak, as if they were raising their hands.

Each of these classrooms usually has two to five kids in it at one time. Personal attention is something that Insight teachers strive for.

“Every e-mail, every phone call, every interaction is one-on-one,” Rayl said. “That’s an important piece to connect individually with that student.”

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