It was the flexibility that MySchool@Kent offered Forest Hills Eastern senior Olivia Laux that she said was key to her switching to taking online courses through the Kent ISD program.
“Being a Type 1 diabectic, I was missing a lot of school because the pump wasn’t working correctly or I didn’t feel well,” Olivia said. “Online classes allowed me to do things at my own pace and speed. Like for math, it takes me forever to get through math as I have to sit and concentrate on it. For my other classes, I can usually finish them in a couple of months, but math will take me four.”
Olivia’s mother, Meghan Laux, could not believe the difference in her daughter from struggling at school to being a successful student.
“To be honest, two years ago, we weren’t sure she was going to graduate,” Laux said. “MySchool@Kent empowered her to have the initiative to do it on her own time. The coaching aspect was amazing. It totally changed her approach to school.”
And things were going well, with Olivia expecting to graduate until the COVID-19 pandemic made it to Michigan. Olivia decided to self-quarantine before Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s initial stay-at-home executive order on March 23.
“I kind of did that whole, ‘I’m quarantined, I don’t have to do anything’ for about a week,” she said. Then Olivia rolled up her sleeves, and is on track to graduate in May.
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Like a Four-wheel Drive
“We are built for something like this,” said MySchool@Kent teacher Doug Hicks, who added that the program is designed for no sick days or snow days, which gives the ability to transition into a situation such as the current extended shutdown.
“If you want an analogy, basically MySchool@Kent is like a four-wheel drive vehicle — no, more like a hybrid four-wheel drive vehicle. With the coronavirus, we just put it in four-wheel drive and kept going,” Hicks said.
Started in 2012, MySchool@Kent was a response to for-profit online schools that were being offered, Principal Danielle Hendry said. The program for students in grades 6 to 12 is designed to be flexible, and can be personalized to each student while also meeting state required guidelines. All students are given a device and internet access if needed. Students usually visit the MySchool@Kent building on the Kent ISD campus at least twice a week for testing and to set goals with a coach. They can also meet face-to-face with teachers.
“We traditionally serve students who already have extenuating circumstances, including students who are traveling abroad and those with medical needs,” Hendry said. “Our experience with those students meant that we already had a protocol for what to do when a student is unable to come to the classroom.”
Of course the stay-at-home order was different, in that instead of one or a few students unable to come to class, it was the entire 400-plus student body, plus teachers and staff, who could not come to school. The staff met and, after trying a few different platforms, settled on the Zoom application for instruction, meetings and other interactions.
“Students are able to get one-on-one help from our certified teachers and talk with their academic coaches to ensure they stay on pace,” Hendry said. “Aside from academics, we wanted to make sure our students were safe both physically and emotionally, and that students that learn differently still got the support they need to be successful.”
MySchool@Kent mental health liaison Colton Cnossen reached out to every student on his caseload during the first couple days of closure, and teachers and coaches identified others who might be struggling. MySchool@Kent also partnered with Kent School Services Network and school districts to help make sure students were safe and had access to food.
As of April 3, MySchool@Kent had five seniors complete all their required courses to graduate. About 100 are expected to graduate this school year.
Re-learning for All
Hicks, who teaches social studies and has been with MySchool@Kent for eight years, said there have been some adjustments to being entirely online.
“For me, it has been like going back to my first year,” he said. “I am re-learning the need to take mental breaks. I feel like I can’t walk away, but I need to walk away. It’s hard, because you work to get your email caught up and then you leave for a while and come back to more than 150.
“In fact, while I have been talking to you,” he told a reporter, “I have heard my email chime at least four to five times.”
Hicks said he also has spent more time working directly with students and parents, discussing their concerns about how tests will be handled and whether a given student would move to the next level or graduate this year. To meet state guidelines, MySchool@Kent does proctor its tests, which are taken at the MySchool@Kent facility on the Kent ISD campus. With the executive order ending face-to-face education, MySchool@Kent students will test at home.
“I miss the social connection,” Hicks said. “It was that one-on-one time you had with the student. You just knew at a certain time so-and-so would be coming in to talk about school or this student would be just stopping by to say hi.”
But for everything else — from tools to pacing to the curriculum — “it’s business as usual,” Hicks said.