Back in 2003, my family took a chance. It was a big one. Not like changing to soy milk or getting a pet snake. Not anything like that. We put our kids in a new school.
It was not merely new to us. It truly was a brand spankin’ new school. How often does that happen, to get to be one of the first to have children in a brand new school? We felt so lucky to have found it and to be able to enroll. We loved what we saw of the curriculum our school had chosen and couldn’t wait to get started. Even so, we were a bit unsure. We didn’t know how it would all work out. We couldn’t see very far ahead, so we just went one step at a time. That’s how all pioneers take the journey. And we were, indeed, pioneers.
It wasn’t just that our school was new. It was a new way of “doing school,” unfamiliar to just about everybody. Public schools where teachers teach and students learn full-time at home using an online curriculum were just getting off the ground. A lot of people had a hard time getting their minds around how it would work and if it would work. Take it from me, it was no walk in the park to explain it back then to your pediatrician or pastor or at Thanksgiving dinner with more teachers than turkey legs around the family table.
That fall nine years ago, our oldest three children started kindergarten, 4th and 6th grades in the Wisconsin Virtual Academy. Our boys graduated, went on to a traditional high school and will both be in college this fall. That kindergartener will finish her grade school years when she graduates this weekend. Our family will travel about three hours to celebrate with my daughter’s class, kids and their families from all over Wisconsin. It will be like other graduations in lots of ways, but in one big way it will be much sweeter. As one of our school’s founding families, we will see our school’s mission realized in a significant way when the five-year-olds of 2003 become the class of 2012. In any new grade school the graduation of the first class of kindergarteners nine years later is a big deal. So it will be for us.
As our kids look forward, only forward, I will pause to look back a bit to those first years. I’ll sit around the fire with my fellows on the pioneer trail and remember with gratitude all of our dear teachers and our school leaders who walked along with us. I’ll recall the hopes we had when we began for each of our children and for our family unit and how today they are much more than just hopes.
A choice to do the unusual seems to ask just a bit more of you. Pioneers face skeptics and travel on with faith and gumption. They work hard, giving their best and hoping that in the end their choices will be good ones. Hundreds of thousands of families have done just that over the last decade or so in schools like ours in states around the country. One of them is the family of Carolynn Seward, a 2012 high school graduate of the Minnesota Virtual Academy, who shares her experience and her future plans here.
Online public schools are an unusual choice made by few families. Those parents and their boys and girls have a special role in education reform. Each journey is very personal, but it is also transformative in that over time pioneers together leave a trail, a trail that takes us all to a new place and that teaches us as we walk it.
Everyone who hopes for better schools should think of the families that are getting us there. One step at a time. One graduation at a time. One precious life at a time.