Editor’s note: For one BeLA student and her family, the transition from Bellefonte Area Middle School to Bellefonte eLearning Academy and back to BAMS was made smooth thanks to the help of district administrators and teachers, and not having to constantly enroll in and out of school during the transition. One mom anonymously explains her story, skepticism of virtual education and eventually how BeLA helped her daughter get through school during a rough time in life and made the family feel at ease about online learning – all while still providing the student with one-on-one help, the option to participate in district-sponsored extracurricular activities and a flexible education.
“Please, I just want to do cyber school!” This was the plea of our daughter halfway through her seventh-grade year. What we thought was going to be a passing request resulting from what might have been a bad day turned into a plea that didn’t go away.
It seemed like a bad idea to us, but we knew she wasn’t going to let it go until we gave it some serious consideration. Having seen many of ads for PA Cyber we looked there first. We participated in one of their information sessions. To be honest, it just seemed like such a huge change, and one I was somewhat afraid to navigate as a parent. I then turned to the guidance department and administration at Bellefonte Area Middle School. It was then that they told us about Bellefonte eLearning Academy. I immediately felt more at ease about the idea of trying cyber school through our school district because it was already so familiar.
We set up a meeting to learn more. My daughter and I met with Sommer Garman, the middle school and BeLA principal, Mrs. Miller, a guidance counselor, and Rebecca Leitzell, the BeLA coordinator. That meeting was so insightful. I also found it refreshingly honest. Mrs. Garman stated at the start, “We see way more students fail at this than succeed.” It was made clear that cyber school is not an easy way out of traditional school work. It’s rigorous. It requires a great deal of motivation and self-discipline. It’s a different way of learning – and for some students it’s the perfect fit. For others, it proves to be too challenging.
However, it was also made very clear to us that if she decided to try BeLA, even if only for a few weeks and decided it wasn’t for her, she’d be able to make a smooth transition back to BAMS. Unlike with another cyber charter school, there is no need to unenroll from one school district and enroll in another – just to do it all over again it isn’t a good fit. She’d still be a student of Bellefonte Area School District, and she’d still have access to all of its resources, including the school libraries; band, orchestra and choir; and other extracurricular activities.
My daughter and I left that meeting with two very different ideas.
For me, I was thinking, “No way – this just seems like it’s going to be way too hard and boring!” For her, as we walked to the car in the parking lot, she emphatically declared, “I want to do it.” So, after much family discussion, we began taking the necessary steps to make it happen. And, within a week, she was all set up with her own BeLA laptop, issued to her by the district, and she was enrolled her in courses. Ms. Leitzell was extremely kind and helpful in this whole process. She assured my daughter (and me) that she was available to help in any way and that she had lots of office hours during the week during which my daughter was welcome to go to her office for help – or even to just have a change of scenery as she completed her assignments.
At first, it was great. She loved the flexibility. She loved that she could sleep in later and then work at her own pace when she was ready and when she felt most productive. The first few weeks went well. But then, things got tough. She started to get behind on her assignments. And soon, she felt really overwhelmed because of this. We tried to get her to go and see Ms. Leitzell for help, but she refused. She didn’t want to get help from her online teachers either, though they also had virtual office hours in which they were available to assist students.
Finally, though, we made her go and see Ms. Leitzell, who had been checking in on her frequently, all while being very positive and encouraging. That first day with Ms. Leitzell made such a difference. Our daughter realized that it was OK to get some help – that she didn’t need to do this all on her own. Afterall, trying to learn algebra on your own is ridiculously hard! She started to see Ms. Leitzell a couple times a week. She was starting to get her head above water and she was feeling so much better about all of it.
One thing about BeLA that really appealed to our daughter at that first meeting was the fact that she could work at her own pace – including working ahead. While there was a recommended pace and dates when assignments should be completed, really there was just one end date, May 25, when all assignments had to be complete. And, the opportunity was there for her to finish before May 25 – thereby starting summer vacation earlier than expected. Well, it seemed at times that she’d never get caught up let alone finish early. But, she worked incredibly hard those last few weeks and finished on May 24 – one day early. She was thrilled…and exhausted.
As a parent, it was really difficult to watch my daughter struggle. It was hard to watch her be so miserable at times. But, it was also encouraging to see her be so persistent – that’s how we’ll put it positively. After that first month or so when the reality of how difficult cyber school really is set in, we reminded her that she could go back to BAMS – that it would be an easy transition. But she refused to do that. I couldn’t understand why she wouldn’t want to just go back to what was, overall, much easier. But, what seems easy enough to an adult can be incredibly difficult for a child. When I’d ask her why she didn’t just go back to the middle school she’d reply, “Because everyone will be like, ‘Where have you been?’ It’ll be so awkward!” My response to her was simply, “You just tell them, ‘I tried cyber school, and it sucked, so I’m back.’” To me, it was simple, but to a middle schooler, it was anything but. And so, she endured the misery for the remainder of the school year.
Our daughter had always been a straight-A student, but that semester with BeLA brought lower marks than she’d ever had before. That was frustrating and disappointing. But, we were still incredibly proud of her for how hard she worked and how determined she’d been to complete it, no matter what – and to do so a day early, no less.
Would I say that our daughter falls into that category of those who failed at cyber school? No, I wouldn’t. But I also would have to say that she didn’t fall into the category of those who feel like it’s the perfect fit. She learns better in a traditional classroom setting. Therefore, she returned to BAMS in eighth grade, and she had a successful school year. And she better appreciated the traditional classroom setting and her teachers because she’d experienced how difficult it was to try to learn on your own. Some students think they want to do cyber school because it’ll be easier. I’m not sure if our daughter had that misconception or not, but she definitely discovered the truth about the level of difficulty involved with online learning at home. It is indeed rigorous – anything but easy.
I will always look back on that semester of BeLA with mixed feelings. The days were sometimes tough. I’m a stay-at-home mom and had two young children still at home during that time. In some ways it was really nice and convenient to have our teenage daughter at home during the day with us. She helped out with babysitting if I had an appointment, for example. And she got some extra quality time with her younger siblings and me. But it was also difficult to see her sitting there struggling with school work or with the motivation to even do the work. Deep down inside I knew that school was a better place for her to be – with other kids her age and the energy that comes from them and the school experience. However, I’ll always be grateful that we had this overall experience because it was the straw that broke the camel’s back – it was the thing that helped us see that our daughter was suffering from something bigger than the average troubles of adolescence.
Her desire to withdraw from school and everything related to it, coupled with several other red-flag-type situations, helped us see that she needed help. During her semester of BeLA she began seeing a mental health counselor and was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. Through the help of regular counseling and medication, she is a happier, healthier young woman now. Had she been in traditional school during that time it would have been extremely difficult to get the help she needed. But because she was doing BeLA, she had the flexibility in her schedule to get to all of her necessary appointments and receive the help she needed at that time. That was most definitely a silver lining to what was moreover a gloomy period of time.
We all came away from our BeLA experience with a greater appreciation for several things:
- the traditional school setting;
- our school district that recognizes that not all students learn the same way and therefore provides options and opportunities for our children;
- the caring staff we have at BASD with Ms. Leitzell was phenomenal;
- the importance of paying close attention to all aspects of our children’s overall health, including their mental health; and
- another learning and growing opportunity, one from which we all came out stronger and wiser.
We have other children coming up through the district. It won’t come as a surprise if one day – possibly during those tough middle school years, one of them says to us, “I want to do cyber school.” As each child is an individual, we’ll give due consideration to his or her plea. But we’ll already have a wealth of knowledge and experience to help us in making the best decision. We’ll also be confident knowing that we will get great support from our school district as well. We’ll have been down that road before, and we’ll be ready to navigate that new journey.