Column: Program helps at-risk students graduate

Carl Schultz

Students who struggle to complete high school have presented a challenge to educators for decades. The struggles are almost as numerous as the students themselves. Some can’t attend school because they must care for ill parents at home. Some struggle with disabilities, severe illness or crippling anxiety. A few are already parents and a small number are the main wage earners for their families even though they are still young.

Tragically, past generations of students like them dropped out of school because there was no viable alternative. At Fitzgerald Public Schools, we linked the power of relationships and technology to open a new avenue for these students to succeed. Our flexible, relationship-based approach could be replicated in public school districts across the state and nation to make sure every student has a pathway to graduation.

Our program, called the Fitzgerald Virtual Academy, merits a closer look from fellow educators, researchers and policy makers as a means to comply with requirements of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. The act requires school districts to meet the individual needs of students and offer multiple pathways and timelines to graduation.

Our approach has five key elements.

Flexibility: Students can do their work anywhere, any time as long as they stay on track and meet with their faculty coach every week. Students also can move through classes slower or faster than the set schedule.

Relationships: Parents and students say the caring relationships with staff make the program work. The staff are available at any time to help students and their families.

High expectations: Because of the close relationships, staff set high expectations for students and the students respond. “The staff want them to be the best they can be and the kids really like that. They don’t want to let them down,” said Mary Ward, whose granddaughter Shelby is a student.

Tight focus: Students focus on one course at a time. Students who are facing a host of life challenges often struggle to juggle the standard high school class load of six classes. The focus on one class makes school possible in their minds.

Comprehensive services: Unlike purely online programs, our students have access to the same comprehensive services as any student at Fitzgerald High School. These include social workers, guidance counselors, English-language tutors, special education staff and speech pathology.

We created the Virtual Academy out of deep commitment to serve every student. We are not alone, as a recent study by the National School Board Association found that traditional school districts outpace all other types of schools for offering choices that meet every possible student need. In addition, the study found that traditional school districts offer comprehensive services that no other type of school can match. It appears that pathways already exist – and they exist within local K-12 school districts through programs like our virtual academy. Our academy offers one way to keep building on those options.

We invite other school districts to study our model. We ask state policymakers to support research and funding for alternative education programs modeled after the Fitzgerald Virtual Academy. Our work is far from done, yet the goal is within our grasp. We can make sure every young person begins adulthood with a high school diploma in hand.

Carl Shultz will be superintendent at Bedford Public Schools starting Jan. 1.